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The French Connection in Napa: Wine & Architecture

Since the famous, so-called Judgement of Paris in 1976 when Californian wines tasted blind against the cream of France’s production came out top, Europeans have had to digest the fact that Napa in particular is up there with the Medoc or the Cote d’Or. With great wines and restaurants, and a climate much nicer than the one we are blessed with in Britain, in fact it is hard not to be seduced.

“Perspective Napa Valley”, a new book with beautiful photos taken by Sam Aslanian using long-expired film with unpredictable and interesting results, gives an idea of why it is so easy to fall under the spell of the area. A strong sense of place, of small town life, and family owned properties is revealed.

The book is introduced by Linda Reiff, President of the Napa Valley Vintners. This extremely active organization, founded in 1944 with 7 members, now represents nearly 500 wineries. Not much happens here without Linda and her team knowing about it, instigating it or promoting it, both locally and internationally. They make it their business to guard the reputation of Napa, with its great variety of soils, and microclimates. If you want information these are the people to turn to. For instance, what percentage of California’s grapes do Napa Valley vineyards produce? 4 per cent. Including wines from other appellations made in Napa, Napa Valley wineries are responsible for 52 per cent of the value of Californian wines sold.

On a recent trip in early December, we drew our curtains to see the glorious sunshine we craved but frost on the ground, something we were not expecting. We put our warm European clothes back on, and went out to visit some iconic wineries.

Opus One is just north of the town of Napa. As is well known, it is a joint venture by two great wine families. The architecture chosen by Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in the Medoc and his famous local friend, Robert Mondavi, whose original winery is within sight, was designed to send a signal about the wines.

It is an elegant mixture of classical European references – colonnades round a courtyard leading to a formal Salon furnished with antiques – and Californian redwood and stainless steel. Steps lead from a ground floor rotunda to the cellars, where wine ageing in a thousand new oak barrels is viewed like an artwork. You get a strong message before you taste – it is all about quality, very well controlled.

In the tasting room, winemaker Michael Silacci talks us through the characteristics of the vintages 05, 07, and 10. 2010 was a demanding year with unseasonably cold days, untimely rainfall and surprisingly hot days. They were obliged to leave enough leaves on the vines to protect the grapes from sunburn. 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5.5% Merlot, 5.5%Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, and 1% Merlot, the wine is, surprisingly, Michael’s favourite since his arrival. 07 started well with excellent conditions, but September brought a heat spell, followed by rains and the threat of frost – this is the “most Californian” in the winemaker’s opinion, reflecting the weather. It is the 05, in his opinion, that is the “most classic” after plenty of spring rain, followed by desirably cool conditions allowing slow ripening.

The pretty, snaking road known as the Silverado Trail takes us next to Araujo Estate, Calistoga. This vineyard, idyllically sited in a basin protected by the Vacca mountains, was bought last summer by Francois Pinault, the French businessman who owns First Growth Bordeaux, Chateau Latour. Frederic Engerer, his right hand wine man, is terrier like in searching out interesting vineyards for his multi-millionaire boss to purchase. The price is rumoured to have been astronomical, but this, after all, has been a cult wine for some years.

Near the pleasant farmhouse, and cluster of wood-clad farm buildings a vociferous cock is crowing. The architecture here is homely. Eggs are collected; bees provide honey. They have 462 olive trees and make their own oil. To dress salads, perhaps grown in the orderly kitchen garden glimpsed on the way to the Eisele vineyard, they can use their own balsamic vinegar. Little quail are running between the rows of vines. It is all very biodynamic and appealing.

A traditional barn, reassembled from another site, houses the winemaking facilities; behind it, carved into the hillside are arched cellars, dug out by previous owners Bart and Daphne Araujo, where we taste with winemaker Nigel Kinsman and his team. The Eisele vineyard was identified as a sweet spot on the property many years ago. 2010 with its tight and even tannins will start hitting its stride in about 12 years,says Nigel “ but you can count on it for 30 years or more”. As if to prove a point, he opened the 1995. “The hall mark of Eisele is a fragrant nose, with notes of red and blue fruits, and minerality”. This, cold though it was in the cellar, had all that and promised more, ageing in an integrated fashion with a lovely length.

Our next stop was Yountville, where the first grape vines in California were planted in 1833 by George Yount. When Christian Moueix bought the historic Napanook vineyard, now called Dominus, fine wine lovers took note. In Bordeaux the Moueix family has specialized in wines on or near the famous plateau of Pomerol, identifying the best sites over many years, and patiently, when ever possible, acquiring them. They own or manage top properties such as La Fleur Petrus, Trotanoy, and Belair-Monange, (next to Ausone) in St. Emilion. For over 30 years Christian Moueix managed the family-owned Petrus, now owned and managed by his brother. Could he transfer those French winemaking skills?

Christian makes wines that combine freshness with fruit and ripeness. He abhors the prune-y or raisin-like character of grapes left on the vines to attain mega-ripeness. To bring his fresh style to the very particular area of Napa valley with its greater heat, albeit combined with a more reliable growing season, sounds like a challenge. It was one he embraced. From day one he declined to go the route of irrigation, an unusual stance in California.

Today the reputation of the estate is as high as it could be after many years of replanting and 30 successful vintages. Along the way Christian and his American wife, Cherise, commissioned and built one of the world’s most extraordinary wineries. Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architects, are best known to Brits for transforming a derelict power station into London’s Tate Modern. Christian asked them to create something “invisible”. Famously discreet himself (if that isn’t a tautology), the winery reflects this. There is nothing to stop wine tourists in their tracks. Bridging a path leading through vines to gentle slopes is a long low building apparently made of boulders, merging into the landscape.

At the end of the day we headed for another Franco-American combination, the restaurant RN74 in San Francisco. Named for the main road between Burgundy’s Dijon and Beaune, the décor consists largely of replicas of French Rail’s arrivals and departures boards, with wines replacing destinations. The bar was packed with young business people drinking Burgundy and the best of local pinot noir while waiting for tables. It struck me that Parisians might not be so welcoming to a restaurant named for the route that took us through the charming small towns and beautiful scenery of the Napa Valley.

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