Sauvignon Blanc Smackdown Tour

Enjoy this theme tour. All the wineries will have other wines as well, so it’s not one-dimensional, in case you’re unsure Sauv Blanc deserves your entire focus. If you try all three days, it takes you completely through Napa, northern Sonoma, and out to the beautiful Sonoma coast. That’s a lot of really great countryside driving. At the end you will be in wonderful shape to dine out for months on stories and opinions of Napa vs. Sonoma.

Wineries marked in green are open to the public. Wineries marked in red require appointments.

  • Farella Park

200 cases from Estate grapes made in a low alcohol, crisply acidic style similar to NE Italy. Refreshing. Meant for Summer and fish dishes.

  • Voss                                  

Excellent Napa winery owned by important Australian vintner. Wine made in a riper, fruitier style. Taste at Napa Wine Co.

  • Cliff Lede

Fruit from two cool vineyards in Chiles Valley and Coombesville, 2/3 fermented in stainless.  MLF suppressed. One-third French oak.

  • Honig

Winery in the exact geographic center of Napa Valley. Good track record for flavorful wine with noteworthy minerality..

Stay in Yountville: NAPA VALLEY RAILWAY INN         

Eat: MUSTARDS GRILL, order a bottle of Selene  (Hyde) SB

  • St Supery    

Definitely a winemaker’s style. Grapes grown in a hot inland valley (Dollarhyde Ranch), but wine has steely core. Very attractive price.

  • Grgich-Hills  

Iconic Napa winery makes good Chardonnay, but may well have Napa’s best Sauv Blanc over a 35-year period. Some grapes from Carneros.

  • Whitehall Lane

Twelve percent Semillon in the blend adds ageability and richness.

  • Medlock-Ames  

Six hours of skin soak gives full expression to grapefruit aromas.

  • Geyser Peak   

Huge winery is value leader for Sonoma (along with Kenwood). Like St. Supery makes a crisp refreshing wine from warm location grapes.

Stay at:   DRY CREEK INN                                 

Eat at:     WILLI’S SEAFOOD. Consider Groom SB from Australia

  • Ferrari-Carano

Riper style from Alexander Valley. Very successful Sell 40,000 css/yr.

  • Chalk Hill 

Ten months on lees in French oak make a concentrated, Bordeaux-style.

  • Rochioli 

Twice won Sweepstakes at State Fair. Includes some 50-yr-old vines.

  • Annapolis

Way-the-hell-and-gone up Sonoma Coast on Gualala River. Very strong example of pyrazine driven style. Serve w/ Green Chiles Bisque.

Stay at:      SEA RANCH LODGE                                                   

Eat at:    BLACK POINT INN (at Sea Ranch)

Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent choice as the foundation of one’s white wine drinking experience, at least for a few years in the beginning. It is a reliable wine, both in the sense of being consistent from year-to-year, but also implying pretty good quality across the price range. There are a handful of fine ones available at $10, and several outstanding, world-class examples for less than $25. The flavors are rarely non-descript, and its typically strong acid component matches well with many foods, particularly a seafood course early in the meal. Sauvignon Blanc reminds me of the kind of man many successful American women end up marrying. They are that core of American fathers who go to work every day, attend Little League and soccer games, mow the lawn on Saturday, and always buy a raffle ticket to support their volunteer fire department. They are not undercover agents, nor political activists. They are rarely metrosexuals. They are never lightening rods for attention, offering strings of witty or contentious remarks at cocktail parties. But when you want a shoulder on the wheel, you can count on them to supply the desired weight.

Historically Sauvignon Blanc rode a second chair behind Semillon internationally. That was never true in warm California, but worldwide Semillon acres out-distanced Sauv Blanc by a multiple of 20. In Bordeaux the traditional proportion was two Semillon to one Sauvignon Blanc for classics like Ch. Carbonnieux or the very expensive Haut-Brion Blanc. Semillon is a vigorous producer with a broad, olive oil and figs-like character in its youth. The utility of SB was to provide a green bean back-note and a slash of bracing acid to the blend. California got both Semillon and SB in the 1880’s when Charles Wetmore (head of the State Board of Viticultural Commissioners) visited France equipped with a letter of introduction to the Marquis de Lur-Saluces (Ch. Yquem). Wetmore brought back cuttings, and shared them with Louis Mel (husband of the letter’s author) who owned El Mocho Vyd. Wetmore’s vineyards in Livermore (Cresta Blanca), along with El Mocho, were acquired by Wente in the 1930’s (the second generation Carl F. Wente was President of Bank of America). The Wente clone of Sauvignon Blanc is widely distributed throughout California. Not so with Semillon, which many CA growers have long thought too flabby for the California climate.

In the late 1980’s the world of wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes was turned on its ear by Hunter Winery from Marlborough, New Zealand. They won the Sweepstakes Award at the London Intl. Trade Fair. Seemingly overnight interest in SB soared. But two factors should be pointed out: (1) New Zealand’s annual production of wine at the time was equal to one day’s worth of Italians’ consumption; and (2) Sauv Blanc had been encroaching on Semillon’s dominance in dry white Bordeaux blends since the 1960’s.  Today top producers in Bordeaux routinely use one part Semillon to two parts Sauv Blanc in their blends. New Zealand created a lot of interest, and that demand was filled by Sancerre (in France’s Loire Valley), by California, by Chile, and by South Africa.

There are several features which distinguish one Sauvignon Blanc from another. First is the clone. Twenty-five years ago Doug Meador (then the owner of Ventana Vyd in Salinas Valley) discovered a sport (or point mutation of Sauvignon Blanc he called musque.  That clone provides a tropical fruit note somewhat reminiscent of the Marlborough, New Zealand style. Second is how ripe the grapes get. That can be a function of the climate where the grapes are grown, or it could be a function of the vintage. Marlborough was famously affected by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. A band of dirt, ash, and H2SO4 circled the globe up in the stratosphere for two years following the eruption, blocking the sun and resulting in much higher pyrazine levels in Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. Ripeness can also be affected by the decision of when to pick, or by viticultural techniques such as leaf pulling to get more sunlight on the clusters. Natural acid levels and intensity of pyrazine smell would be the most obvious indicators of ripeness levels. Very ripe examples will have no hint of pyrazine at all, instead producing a melon-like nose.

A third distinguishing feature is gout de terroir. I always feel the center of Napa confers a river stone flavor to Sauv Blanc. That could be a function of modest pyrazine intensity, but many commentators refer to it as ‘minerality’ similar to Sancerre in France’s Loire Valley. I’m inclined to go along to get along. The final features will all have to do with techniques applied in the winery. Aging in barrels is not terribly common, but it does help to justify higher bottle prices which can be a factor in places such as Napa. Barrel aging is sometimes referred to as the dry, white Bordeaux style. I think that style is better defined as blending with Semillon, but why quibble. I do feel Sem – SB blends have better aging characteristics than pure Sauv Blancs.


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