Swirl n’ Spit
By Ethan Hartman
Lowdown: No, it won’t be mistaken for a funky Sonoma or Mendocino County winery, but, believe it or not, I’ve found a welcome island of Italian varietals within the very heart of Cab-Merlot-Chard country. Luna Vineyards, my current Cal-Italian fave known for its Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, is located just a few minutes north of Napa on the Silverado Trail, in the Oak Knoll appellation. Sure, it looks like about a dozen other fake villas throughout the valley, but try not to judge on appearances. It’s actually a nice version of the trope. Climb the tower, and you’ll be surprised at how big the estate vineyard of Pinot Grigio looks and how remote it seems, despite the fact that you could be at a Safeway in less than 10 minutes.
Make no mistake about it, the show here really begins with the first pour. Although many of Luna’s wines are Italian varietals, there is little doubt that they are being made in Napa Valley. Winemaker Michael Drash brings experience from J Vineyards and Far Niente to his work here, and he shows a firm grasp of the California winemaking style. The wines are polished, show thick, velvety mouth-feel and contain massive amounts of both fruit and oak.
Two flights are offered, for $5 and $10; you’ll want one of each to experience the variety offered here. The 2003 Tocai Friulano, ($30) made from Monterey County fruit, is a rare pleasure, with an intriguing, spicy nose, and flavors reminiscent of Gewürztraminer. Even better is the Freakout ($32), which employs the Tocai’s nose in an interesting blend. Oaked heavily enough to please the most reprobate Chardonnay swiller, and yet complex enough for the wine snob–a real winner.
Rounding out the whites is the 2004 Pinot Grigio ($18), which is clearly made from wonderful fruit, but heavy oak and malolactic fermentation cut into the wine’s varietal crispness. Drive north and buy the Robert Sinskey Pinot Gris if the temperature is above 80.
Ah, but what about that Sangiovese? Well, it’s worth the stop. Yes, it is oaky enough to belie its Napa origins, but it’s also the best New World Sangiovese I’ve tasted, without a doubt. Both the Sangiovese ($18) and Reserve ($50) are terrific, dense wines with great color for this varietal and a luxuriously smooth, unctuous mouth-feel. Yes, if they had any more oak they would topple over, but at this level the oak’s vanilla and Sangio’s bright cherry make a lovely combination. And best of all, there is enough acidity to actually drink them with dinner. Despite the reserve having come from a single vineyard, the oaking masks most of the differences; the reserve has more bitterness and astringency from tannin and will be a more long-lived wine, so unless you’re cellaring this one, save your $30 for one of the whites.
The tasting rounds out with a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and several Cab-Sangiovese blends. The Arnold Palmer Cab is a steal at $15, but the high-end blends ($35 and $50) fall flat after the varietal Sangiovese. Both have bracing acidity which should allow them to age if you’re buying for the cellar. The economist in me says stay with the Sangiovese. Invest that money you’re saving by avoiding pricey Napa Cabernet in some Taleggio and a baguette.
Bottom line: An absolute must for Italophiles or anyone trying to escape the Cab-Merlot doldrums.
Don’t miss: It’ll be strawberry season soon, and lower Silverado is full of strawberry stands all season. Some are even local, and Napa is just as good for these berries as it is for grapes.
Spot: Luna Vineyards. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. Tastings, $5-$10. 2921 Silverado Trail, Napa. 707.255.5682.
From the March 29-April 4, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2006 Metro Publishing Inc.