Sunday, January 23, 2011

Two Tastings on Two Sides of the Valley: Darioush and Silenus Vintners

The weather has really cleared up here and it has been going to sunny and about 70 degrees here for the past several days (and yet has been dropping down below freezing at night! Makes it pretty difficult to know what to wear when it is 29 degrees when I head off to work and 70 degrees by the time I come home)

This, combined with the fact that it is still "off-season" as far as tourism goes, makes it a perfect time to enjoy the vineyards and wineries without the crowds (or the occasionally stifling heat of summer.)

As I've already said, I'm going to make it a mission to hit up wineries offering free tasting to Napa Neighbors first. We already know of one of these wineries which is not too far away up the Silverado Trail: Darioush. I've been to Darioush about 3 times... why? Because they clearly put a lot of attention into the atmosphere and the whole wine-tasting experience. But they also put a lot of attention into their wines, which are much better than I had expected. So these two reasons, along with its proximity, make it one of the destinations for visiting when I have guests. Today we don't have guests, but I recently received an email that they had released their limited production Shiraz, which I was curious about and was supposed to be pretty good.

We also wanted to try a new place, however. We've tried most of the wineries along Silverado Trail, but I noticed a smaller winery in the Napa Neighbors list which sounded intriguing: Ideology Cellars. They are a small, custom-crush operation and therefore do not have the real estate (or any good reason) to have their own winery site or tasting room. So what they do is share a co-op tasting room called Silenus Vintners. This is on the opposite side of the valley from Darioush, located off of St. Helena Highway (Hwy 29). However, it is about the same distance up the valley, which means there is a shortcut called Oak Knoll Avenue which cuts straight across the valley floor from Darioush to Silenus.

Darioush has a dominating and unmistakeable presence on the Silverado Trail: it looks like a large sandstone Persian temple, with a series of columns leading up to the front door. Indeed, the Persian influence is there because the winery was founded by Darioush Khaledi, an Iranian who found wealth by creating a successful chain of small grocery/corner stores in the Los Angeles area. The Persian theme continues with the prominence of Shiraz on their tasting menu; Shiraz is another name for Syrah, which was found through DNA testing to be a hybrid of two grape varietals from Rhône (France). However, Shiraz is also the name of the 6th-largest city in Iran, and shows that this grape probably found prominence and fame in that region.

The Shiraz made by Darioush was good -- rich and full-bodied without being overbearing -- and is a pretty limited production. So it's not always available for tasting. However, their "signature" wine is called "Duel", and is a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon... also quite good. In fact, we really can't find anything wrong with any of the wines at Darioush, which is why we keep going back. Their whites are delicate but have a range from crisp pit-fruit to mellow and musky. Their reds are on the richer side, but medium-bodied and without harsh tannins. I know in the past we have purchased both a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Franc.

We decided not to buy anything this time, even after managing to get our pourer to give us a taste of the Shiraz (he informed us it has only been released to club members so far; it's not on the tasting menu), which was good but I felt it was no better than the Duel. The fact of the matter is that I feel it is decent but overpriced, considering I have had some wonderful Syrahs from Paso Robles in the range of $16-$24, and the Darioush Shiraz is $68.

However, the tasting itself (normally $20; free for Napa Neighbors) was enjoyable, as usual -- enhanced by their attention to aesthetics as well as a small bowl of delicious salted pistachios (nice and neutral on the palate) they serve with the tasting. I noticed it seemed to be far less busy than usual, with only 4 or 5 pairs of people tasting (at peak times, this place is packed)... maybe it's because of the time of year, or is it because of the NFL playoff games? [PS. If you go, try to get Ish as your server! He's the best! Very attentive and helpful, plus a good sense of humor!]

We drove across Oak Knoll Avenue -- which passes a few wineries but mostly just cruises through all the vineyards on the valley floor -- and made it to Silenus in just a few minutes. Silenus was even deader than Darioush -- in fact, we were the ONLY people there!

The pourer seemed excited for the change of pace and for having some customers to talk to, and he informed us that Silenus is a shared tasting room for multiple smaller custom-crush productions. They offer two tastings -- a tasting of whites ($15) and a tasting of reds ($25). He said one thing that is interesting (and perhaps unfortunate) is that the tasting menus change every week, so you don't ever actually have a chance to try all of the wines you might be curious about. (In addition, I think $25 is a pretty prohibitive tasting fee, if you ask me.)

Being Napa Neighbors, we decided to try everything on the menu (both whites and reds -- we're not picky, we like "whatever is good"), but we did decide to share a tasting. This is something we often do, both to save money but also to be sure we can taste a wide variety on wines without actually drinking too much (especially when we are driving).

The great thing I love about co-op tasting rooms like this -- and there are a handful in Napa, but seem to be more common in Sonoma -- is that you get a lot of variety all in one place. I've noticed in the bigger tasting rooms, there tends to be not as much variety. Even if they use several varietals (which most do), the personal tastes and style of the winemaker tends to shine through and so you might notice a common thread throughout multiple wines, like a leaning towards more acidity, or more tannins, etc.

Here at Silenus, we tried three cabernets from three different vineyards and three different winemakers and, lo and behold, the cabs were all vastly different.

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