Report from Napa Valley 1
Or at least on top of Howell Mountain, in the tasting room at Outpost Winery, where the floor to ceiling windows offer an extraordinary view down over the vineyards and a small lake out into the bowl of Napa Valley. (As winemaker Thomas Brown pointed out when I was admiring the view, the building initially had a blank wall where those windows are; co-owner Kathy Dotzler walked in, took one look at it, and said, more or less, "are you guys nuts?")
I tasted through the Outpost portfolio with Thomas, the only winemaker I know who has a degree in poetry from UVA rather than in enology from UC Davis, and my friend Kerri Laz, the wine buyer for Dean & Deluca's St. Helena store. I was skeptical at the start, since the only Outpost wine I'd had before was its '98 Zinfandel, which was presented to me with the usual fanfare of next-best-greatest-Zin-thing-since-Turley and struck me instead as overly porty, slab-like stuff-if a wine can be said to be slab-like.
Well, slab-like no more (admittedly, the '98 was Outpost's first vintage, so they were still getting their ducks in a row, or vines in a row, or what have you). The 2004 Outpost Howell Mountain Zinfandel ($42) is ebulliently aromatic with white pepper and dark berry scents, then a surprisingly light-on-its-feet concoction of blackberry liqueur, black pepper and underlying earthy notes. Admittedly, it does have the whopping 16+ alcohol levels that mark most high-end Zins these days, but as Thomas helpfully notes in his very poetic way, it also has a pH of 3.5. (Less poetically: it's got very good acidity, which is why it doesn't seem heavy and/or fat.) In the end, very impressive Zinfandel, one of the best I've had in a while.
We also tasted the 2004 Outpost Grenache ($40), made from estate fruit grown on vines propagated from cuttings taken from Château Rayas. Appealing translucent red color, and a penetrating aroma of what Kerri described as buttered cinnamon raisin toast, which seemed to me a spot-on assessment. Loads of sweet fruit-too sweet for me, but that's not a dismissal of the wine, more a personal preference. The flavor recalled dried cherries with a hint of vanilla, ending in a slightly resinous, smoky finish. No new wood at all; as Thomas pointed out, ripe Grenache often has a slight vanilla note to it, easily mistaken for oak. A few more wines from this tasting tomorrow as I'm running out of time here in foggy Yountville.