Stop by my favorite winery in California’s beautiful Napa Valley for some of the valley’s best wines. From reds to whites to their rare library finds, theirs are truly worth trying.
If you have been following this blog, it’s no secret that my interest and appreciation for wine goes hand in hand with my love of food, travel, and culture. Why? To tell the story of a place – of a people or culture – wine is often a large part of that story.
For centuries and millennia, civilizations have been blending and fermenting fruit juice into wines. Those wines have been part of many a meal, a celebration, even a sacrament (ok, and more than a few events of intoxication-induced debauchery!). People learn about other people, their heritage and culture, and they bond over wine just as much as over food.
Wine has become so much a part of Northern California culture and its marketing/diplomacy to the rest of the world, thanks to the notoriety its wines have gained internationally. And for tourists, a visit to Napa or Sonoma can be transcendent, if not often overwhelming (tour buses of bachelorette parties, anyone?). And for good reason. Its scenic beauty and what seems like an endless variety of commercial wineries and viticultural areas make for a fun wine education and outing with friends.
Of all the wineries I’ve tried, Freemark Abbey is my favorite. Its wines and its people form a great community. My discovery came from an unlikely source: An MBA case study that was turned by my statistics professor into a cursed exam. The exam wasn’t fun, but the subject matter intrigued me. The case centered around the risks Freemark Abbey might take to leave its Johannesburg Riesling grapes on the vine for a late harvest, in the hopes a finicky fungus might take to the crop and produce an extremely rare, intense – and lucrative – dessert wine.
Seriously? Fungus, you say? Just remember the effect of fungal growth on cheese. Gorgonzola, anyone? I know some of you will never get over the idea of intentionally eating something that has rot, but fermentation is responsible for so many of the delicious foods and beverages we eat. I, for one, was intrigued.
So three years ago, on a day trip to Napa, my friends and I decided to try out Freemark Abbey. We came for the MBA nostalgia, but we were hooked on their fabulous wines. Several visits later, I am a huge supporter of their wines.
Having a longer history than many of Napa’s existing wineries, Freemark Abbey has been producing wines for over 125 years. As part of its legacy, its wines were part of the now immortalized 1976 Judgment of Paris face-off between French and California wines. Though California and Hollywood have marketed this event to death for almost 40 years, and I’m sure the French are pretty annoyed with all the hoopla that continues to surround it, it cemented California as an international wine destination and exporter.
Today, Freemark Abbey is transforming its bright – but small – tasting room to accommodate a growing contingent of members and visitors. I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I’d like to enjoy peace and quiet when I visit!
Anyway, enough about the winery, let’s get to the wines! While their Cabernet Sauvignons are my favorite, I enjoy several of their whites, and their Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé is fantastic. So I’ll give you just a few highlights – but keep in mind, this list is not all-inclusive.
- Their dry Riesling is fairly mellow and not quite as crisp as other dry Rieslings (my favorites being from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Germany’s Rhine River Valley), but it still is refreshing and bright in its complexity. A little citrus, a bit of honey – those are the flavors I detected in some great sips.
- Viognier was an unexpected favorite, as it isn’t prevalent in California. In my humid, hot home state of Virginia, Viognier is one of our best varietals (and one of the few Virginia wines I’d recommend to serious wine drinkers!). Freemark’s deliciously crisp, dry, and fruity Viognier made more sense when they told me their grapes come from the flatter, hotter southern end of Napa county close to San Francisco Bay than the hills around the St. Helena winery.
If you like rosé and also drink red wine, this Cabernet rosé is for you. You’re probably more accustomed to Rosé of Pinot Noir or European Grenache. But the bolder, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon lends a deeper, more intense flavor of strawberry and cherry than from a lighter grape – at least in my opinion. My friends seemed to agree and drank all my stash, so I am sadly without.
- Whether you can get your hands on a 2010 (or earlier vintage), 2011, or 2012 of their Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, each one is delicious. The earlier vintages bear the smoothness and maturity of their aging, while the younger bottles are still more than drinkable, with slightly edgier tannins and slightly smokier oak. If you add a bite of cheese or dark chocolate, the dark fruit and hint of sweetness become that much more noticeable.
- Year after year, the Cabernet Boché is the creme de la creme of Freemark’s vineyards produces their best (and thus scarcer and pricier) fruit. It hails from one of Napa’s drier microclimates, so its juice is extremely concentrated. But it’s so good you almost don’t want to waste it on dinner, yet pairing it with food makes it that much more layered in its complexity. It’s one you’d best start before dinner and then have a glass with food so that you can experience every facet of this smooth wine. The 2004 vintage was particularly amazing.
- Like the Bosche, wine from the mountainous Sycamore vineyard is in short supply, as its higher-elevation fruit is smaller and of less yield. Its Cabernet Sauvignon is complex, yet balanced and smooth.
- Though it is hard to come by, their late harvest Johannesburg Riesling Eidelwein is outstanding. You won’t want to waste a drop of it. It is not at all syrupy; its aroma is part honeysuckle; part peach and pear; and part floral. If you can try a botrytised vintage, its flavors are all the more intense. When I was handed a vintage 1986 botrytised sample, it truly was drinking the nectar of the gods. They also do a delicious Zinfandel port.
The library tastings:
I was fortunate to score a library tasting. It was proof that some vintages – and the aging process – can lend legendary status to a wine. On the other hand, the unpredictability of the bottling process, especially with natural cork, can turn what once was an amazing vintage into, well, bad vinegar. (Sidebar: synthetic cork is much more reliable for wine preservation and storage, despite the snootiness and traditional appeal of real cork)
- 1969 Petite Syrah: To my friends, this wine was basically the holy grail of wines. It aged beautifully, retaining its peppery bite but having tamed the acidity, bitter tannins and oak to create the masculine kind of wine one would imagine being dipped in the library with cigars and a smoking jacket. Aside from the reverence for consuming something that is now 46 years old and was growing the year a man first walked on the surface of the moon, it was a wonderfully rich sip.
- 1993 Sycamore Cabernet Sauvignon: Call me crazy, but I preferred the 21 year old Cab to the older Petite Syrah (this is not symbolic of how I prefer my men!). I just happen to prefer Cabs, and this one was luxurious. It was ripe, rich, deeply fruity with blackberry and currant, and its oak, tannins, and acidity all were so well integrated.
- 1981 Solari Cabernet Sauvignon: I was eager to try a wine that was born along with me. I was sadly disappointed that this particular bottle or case had turned to vinegar. So either I aged much better than the wine did, or it doesn’t bode well for those of us born in 1981!