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Napa's Best Secret

Some of Napa's most intriguing bottles are sold exclusively at winery shops.

True to Woody Allen's observation that 80 percent of success is showing up, many Napa Valley wineries reserve certain bottles solely for travelers who appear at their doorsteps. Wines that are available only at wineries are a happy little secret that Napa Valley has been harboring for years. Some of these wines are being auditioned for the national market. Some are made from grapes that a vintner is experimenting with. Some are kept on hand for tasting-room novices. And a few are treats for the winemakers themselves--wines that, as Robert Brittan, the general manager of Stags' Leap, says, "I do for giggles and grins."

Brittan calls his only-in-Napa selections "by-the-way wines." The intention, he says, is to "wow people with our top national-brand wines and then say, 'By the way, want to try our rosé?'" It's an interesting trick, both as a marketing tool and as a way of staying creative. As Rob Hunter, director of winemaking for Sterling, puts it, "These wines aren't necessarily the stars of the show, but in an egotistical way they give us a chance to strut our stuff." Although all the wineries mentioned below offer several wines for drop-ins, it's best to call ahead to make sure a specific one is still available. After all, secret pleasures tend not to remain that way.

STERLING VINEYARDS
More than a dozen winery-only varietals are available in the tasting room or through the wine club of the huge Sterling Vineyards, a Seagram estate. The whites include Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blancs, with some oddities thrown in. The 1998 Malvasia Bianca ($12) is a sweet dessert wine favored by tour-bus crowds. "It's a way to ease people in," Hunter says. The reds reflect abundant experimentation with fruit from several vineyards. The elegant 1997 Zinfandel ($18) ripples with raspberry notes, while the bouquet of the 1997 Syrah (about $18) is almost coffee like. Some tasting-room favorites develop a cult status. The rich 1998 Viognier was so good that "it started getting more e-mails than I do," Hunter says. It has since sold out, but 150 cases of the 1999 will be available next May. (1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga; 707-942-3344; www.sterlingvineyards.com)

BERINGER VINEYARDS
Beringer making limited-production wines is a little like the Hyatt or Hilton putting its name on a bed-and-breakfast. But even as zillions of gallons of Beringer's white Zin and Chenin Blanc are pumped into national distribution, winemaker Ed Sbragia reserves some of his real artistry for the tasting-room crowd. A dozen or so wines are available only under the gabled slate roof of the 115-year-old Beringer Rhine House. While there are a few offbeat choices--like the experimental 1995 Port ($20) and the botrytis-infused dessert wine called 1995 Nightingale ($30)--the real treat for visitors is tasting Sbragia's various Cabernets. "One of the exciting things about doing the Rhine House selections is that I can make separate productions from each of our four reserve Cabernet vineyards to show how different they are," he says. The 1994 Bancroft Ranch ($100), for instance, produces an explosion of berry flavors. The 1994 Marston Vineyard ($85) is smoother and softer. "For both the visitor and the winemaker, all these choices are exciting," Sbragia says, "and sometimes a little exhausting." Beringer's doing an excellent job of keeping up, which is part of the reason it won an F&W American Wine Award this year. (2000 Main St., St. Helena; 707-963-8989; www.beringer.com)

CAKEBREAD CELLARS
The 1998 Vin de Porche ($15) is what Dennis Cakebread calls "a pizza and hot dogs wine." In truth, Porche, a refrigerator-friendly rosé, is an excuse for Cakebread to make wine by the saignée process, bleeding off excess juice from barrels of fermenting Syrah and Pinot Noir. The 1997 Rubaiyat ($20) is pure poetry--or at least the name on the bottle is. Also a blend of Pinot Noir and Syrah, Rubaiyat is named after the poem by the 12th-century Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyám, whose most famous line is "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread--and thou." Lyrical, yes, but not quite ready for distribution. (8300 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 707-963-5221; www.cakebread.com)

THE HESS COLLECTION
Along with the world-class painting-and-sculpture collection of the Swiss-born entrepreneur Donald Hess, visitors can take in winemaker Randle Johnson's alternatives to the vineyard's $10 basic Chards and Cabs. "These wines all get super-duper treatment, because they're such small productions," Johnson says. "They're our little jewels." That's true, minor scratches and all. The 1996 Hess Select Syrah ($12.50), the winery's first attempt at the Rhône-style wine, "could use a bit more complexity," Johnson says, but the 1995 Merlot ($22.50) is brimming with the aroma of violets and the flavor of ripe black fruits. Hess keeps it off the market so it doesn't compete with his Cabernet blends. Not that it's easy to rival the winery-only, rich-as-chocolate 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($49), which comes from a textbook-perfect growing season. "Fortunately for our winery visitors," Johnson says, "we just couldn't produce enough for the national market." (4411 Redwood Rd., Napa; 707-255-1144; www.hesscollection.com)

NIEBAUM-COPPOLA
Francis Ford Coppola is famous for his love of family, and his winery-only wines all have a homey touch. The 1998 Talia Rose ($11), named for Coppola's sister, is an offbeat blend of Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. Assistant winemaker Corey Beck says Coppola envisioned it as "a traditional Italian blush wine that people could take on a picnic at the winery." The limited-production 1997 Viognier ($28) and 1998 Chardonnay ($20) are varietals that will one day be components of what Coppola calls a white Rubicon, to accompany Niebaum-Coppola's popular red Rubicon (named after the river that Julius Caesar famously crossed). The 1997 Dolcetto ($32) is also a work in progress, channeling the essence of strawberry both in color and flavor. Five hundred cases of the 1998 will arrive at the winery in February 2000. "These wines have a much more personal touch than the Coppola Bianco, which customers can find at their local Costco," Beck says. (1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford; 707-968-1100; www.niebaum-coppola.com)

ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY
General manager Clay Gregory describes the winery exclusives at Mondavi as a combination of avant-garde performers, cherished friends and kooky relatives. The 1998 Zinfandel Rosé ($12), with its sashaying cherubs on the label, "is never going to elevate the image of Mondavi on the international wine circuit," he says, "but people occasionally need something fun to drink by the pool." The 1991 Carneros Brut Reserve Sparkling Wine ($35) is a vestige of Mondavi's less-than-successful attempts to make a world-class sparkling wine. The bubbly blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay "wasn't quite ready to meet the outside world," Gregory says, but it was far too intriguing and festive to warrant dumping the barrels. On the other hand, he couldn't make enough 1997 I-Block Fumé Blanc ($50), which was drawn from the 53-year-old To-Kalon vineyards, a 10-acre patch of Napa soil believed to have the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in North America. "The taste is magnificent," Gregory says, "but the yield was pathetic"--about 280 cases. (Small quantities are available at a few Napa Valley stores.) Two hundred cases of Mondavi's 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, held back for aging and released in 1994, now sell for $150 a bottle in the winery's retail shop. (7801 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville; 707-226-1395; www.robertmondaviwinery.com)

STAGS' LEAP WINERY
Winemaker Robert Brittan knows there's more to life than Stags' Leap's award-winning Petite Sirahs, Cabernets and Merlots. "We've gotten so wrapped up in producing these high-alcohol, overly ripe, extracted wines," he says. "But what do you do for lunch?" One answer is the 1998 Amparo Rosé ($16). Named for the wife of one of the early owners, this wine is strawberry colored, unpretentious and fun. Another wine that's at home with turkey sandwiches is the 1998 Carignane ($20), once the basis for jug wine. While those varietals show Brittan's lighter side, the new 1996 Ne Cede Malis ("Don't give in to misfortune"), a $50 southern-Rhône-style blend, is serious stuff. After eight years of studying 63-year-old Petite Sirah vines, right down to their DNA, to produce the wine, Brittan says, "We really understand it now." (6150 Silverado Trail, Napa; 707-944-1303; www.stagsleapwinery.com)

David Hochman is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.

Published October 1999
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