Tasting Notes, 2009: Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars, Duckhorn Vineyards

heitzI realize that Memorial Day is all about remembering those who served our country, but since I also had the day to go wine tasting, I decided it would be somewhat appropriate to visit a few of the pioneering wineries here in the Napa Valley, in order to sample the current releases from such stalwarts as Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars and Duckhorn Wine Company (I had Chateau Montelena on my itinerary as well, but they were closed for the holiday).

Since I have lived here in the Napa Valley, I have visited each of these three wineries countless times (not counting the year when I actually worked over at Grgich Hills). As far as I’m concerned, all three of these wineries are good, and for anyone who doesn’t have any specific wine-tasting agenda plotted out (like me, on Memorial Day), then these places are some of the best wineries to visit on a drop-in basis.

Rather than provide an exhaustive list of tasting notes for each winery, in the interest of brevity, I’ve simply compiled some highlights from the day. Although I have become familiar with the portfolios from each of these wineries over the years, I was reminded of a few things today that I had forgotten. Here are a few of my observations:

Grgich Hills: These wines display a great deal of old-world character — perhaps more than I realized as an employee. In truth, the Grgich Hills wines remain different than many of the Napa wines out there. Stylistically, I suspect that the Grgich Hills wines have remained constant, while the Napa Valley in general has adopted a more fruit-forward approach. My epiphany during this tasting was that perhaps Grgich Hills wines are not for beginners.

To wit, I tasted the 2005 Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvingon yesterday, which was a typical Grgich blend of about 90% Cabernet, with small doses of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The wine displayed a faint serrano pepper aroma, which I’ve often come to associate with Stags Leap District Cabernet (by volume, most of the Grgich Hills Cab is actually sourced from the winery’s Yountville property, which flanks Highway 29). This earthy herbaceous trait may challenge those who prefer a burst of fruit upfront, but may be welcome by those who cut their teeth on Bordeaux.

In tasting the 2004 Grgich Hills Yountville Selection (sourced from two distinct plots of 50-year-old Cabernet vines), I again encountered the same style. To be sure, this wine is a big, dark, brooding beast — intense in its earthiness, but somehow seamless in its complexity. Certainly, both Grgich Hills Cabernets demand a food pairing to really shine, which has become a contrarian approach over the last couple of decades (at least here in the Napa Valley).

• Heitz Cellars: Honestly, I had forgotten how great Heitz is. The value that this winery presents is really rare here in the Napa Valley, and it immediately reminded me of Chappellet (another old winery that has kept its prices low, while quality has remained high). One thing I admire about Heitz is how long they hold their wines in the cellar: the 2004 Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet is their current release, as most other wineries in Napa roll out (or have already rolled out) the 2006 vintage.

I thought that the entire Heitz portfolio was great, and the prices are almost absurdly low: the Zinfandel was only $22 and the Cabernet was only $42. Honestly, any time I can find a great Napa Cabernet for under $60, I’m calling that a bargain these days. But the Heitz Cellars Cabernet — along with the terrific Turnbull Wine Cellars Cabernet ($45) — is among the greatest deals in the Napa Valley.

• Duckhorn Wine Company: In contrast to Heitz, I had forgotten how pricey Duckhorn wines had become. The funny thing about it is, the prices at Duckhorn had taken me by surprise during my last visit as well. I’ll drive up to Duckhorn when the occassion arises because I do enjoy their wines, but then I always get sticker shock when I’m reminded that the Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc is $27 and the Duckhorn Estate Merlot is $85. In the latter instance, that really is a lot of coin for a Merlot that’s definitely good, but which is not really any better than the bevy of $40 Napa Merlot here in the valley.

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