Monday, January 24, 2011

Freemark Abbey

Today I got a phone call from Sarah, saying she was finished work early and wouldn't mind driving up to Calistoga to pick me up. Considering this (and being just after 4 pm), I figured this might be a good opportunity to stop into a random winery on the way home. There are several well-known ones right off of 29 which I have never even tried -- Grgich, Markham, Freemark Abbey, Behringer, Sutter Home, etc.

We headed south from Calistoga and decided to pull into Freemark Abbey -- we knew of this one because it is located right next to Silverado Brewery, a brewpub where we ate a few years ago (and have never been back, because it's just not good.) We walked up to the tasting room, a little self-conscious because there was only one other couple in there -- for some reason it always feels a little strange to have practically undivided attention from the pourer.

It felt stranger when I told her that I was a teacher in Calistoga, and she informed me that she had worked in the district for 16 years, until retiring a few years ago. So she started talking to me about several people she knew (my coworkers and some others I know from the high school), and telling me that she had really been a wine server all along, on the side, even when she was teaching (which she did in both St. Helena and Calistoga).

Like many wineries, Freemark Abbey offers more than one tasting menu -- I almost always start with the most basic or low-end tastings, unless there is something particularly interesting or unique on the higher-end or more specialized lists. In this case, the Classic Tasting ($10, but free for Napa Neighbors and up to 3 guests) included a choice of 4 tastings from: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Of that list, the ones that are the most hit-or-miss for us are Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, but we always try to give them a shot anyway because sometimes there are excellent examples of those varietals. The convenient thing about tasting as a couple in a situation like this is that you can each get 4 different tastings and take sips out of each others glasses, resulting in really being able to taste the whole menu, which is what we did. I came in expecting to be most impressed by their reds, but to be honest I don't even remember much about what they tasted like. So they must have all been okay, but nothing remarkable. I can almost always remember wines -- even years later -- if they are remarkably good or remarkably bad.

We were also poured a tasting of their dessert wine, a late-harvest botrytised riesling. We tend to like botrytised wines -- and a lot of people do, but I'm sure it's not a flavor for everyone. Botrytis is a fungus, also known as the "noble rot", which afflicts the grapes and dehydrates them, concentrating the sugars and sort of turning the grapes into raisins but also imparting a somewhat musky flavor to the wine. Drinking rotten, moldy grapes might sound disgusting, but keep in mind this is very similar to the process used in producing some of the finest, most flavorful cheeses out there. Weird, yes... but delicious.

Unfortunately, botrytised wine (listed as "dessert wine" as it is sweet and slightly syrupy) comes at a premium. Because the conditions have to be just right, and small batches are made, and the grapes yield less juice, botrytised wine (often riesling) is harder to find. The bottles tend to be priced accordingly, and this one a very fine example but happened to be $45/bottle -- and, like most late-harvest and botrytised wines, "a bottle" is actually a half-size bottle, 375 mL.

Sarah immediately said yes, and we ended up purchasing both a 2009 Viogner ($27) and the 2008 Edelwein Gold Late Harvest Riesling ($45). Although we were given a slight discount (seemed to be about 10%), this purchase was still a source of some contention for me, because this late-harvest Riesling ends up being the equivalent of a $90 bottle of wine. Although we occasionally purchase $75+ bottles of wine, we don't do so regularly or on a whim.

Still, it is a rare one to fine (and, according to the website, is sold out) and was a fine example of it, with flavors of honey suckle and orange zest. More expensive than I'd prefer, to be sure (I've had decent late-harvest riesling for $26/bottle, and amazing late-harvest semillon for $35/bottle), but I'm sure it will be enjoyed on a special occasion.

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