The wine tourists who spend a day or two hopping from winery tasting room to winery tasting room along the Napa strip may come back home with souvenirs of big parking lots, stretch limos and glitzy tasting rooms. But one of the things which surprised me in this California wine region is that in spite of the full-blown commercialism of the area along highway 29, the region retains an almost intact authenticity as soon as you take a side road, like Silverado Trail for example.
Farella-Park is one of these quiet family wineries you can find on the back roads (you better have a good map, though). It is still very close to the town of Napa (east of Napa), right near the wooded, provencal-looking foothills of the Vaca mountains. This visit was planned by fellow blogger Alder Yarrow, of Vinography, who spent time with us in spite of his busy schedule that weekend (this was the Napa Valley Wine Auction weekend). We were staying a few days in the region at the Bothe Napa Valley State Park north of St Helena (great campground !) and Alder went there in the morning with his wife Ruth to meet us. Meeting in the real world someone with whom you only communicated online before, is great ! He is the same person I knew from his weblog and emails : Non-pretentious, easy going and eager to learn...
B. and me step into Jack's car (Jack from forkandbottle), who spent time with us too, and whom we met the day before (a first meeting too, after having known each other online for a year or so). We follow Alder's car on the beautiful and quiet back country to Farella's vineyards. The winery looks provencal, with its tiny windows, thick walls and roughcast exterior.
The estate was started by tom's father, Frank Farella in 1985 and Tom joined for good in 1991. He had his training at UC Davis, worked at Preston Vineyards from 1983 to 1989 and also spent time (1989) in France, in Burgundy. When he worked at Domaine Jacques Prieur there, he had a very different perspective from the UC Davis teachings, this was more like rusticity and tradition. UC Davis is very scientific, which is very good for chemistry and oenology (by the way, Fresno State U. is better for vineyard management) and he felt he had to find his place between these two worlds.
To say it short, his philosophy is more on the "let it go" line (which somehow scares the UC-Davis part of himself) than on the technological winemaking one. His wines are unfiltered, he uses very little or no SO2 to let the wine go where it needs to. Free SO2 is 25-30 at bottling, which is very comfortable for a winemaker and which goes away after a while anyway. When he went to Burgundy, he was amused to see that the wineries there were going stainless when California was going to more wood containers. speaking of wood, he recalls an anectode during his stay in Burgundy which was symptomatic of the colluding practices : He was helping at cleaning the just-emptied foudres (big-volume casks) and wanted to use the water hose to rince abundantly the big cask, which would have been the Davis no-germs policy, but the vignerons stopped him and explained that it was much better to just let the empty foudre dry alone. He was sure that the next day, the place would be full of fruit flies, but the next morning, surprise, no fruit fly...
The total surface of the vineyard is 26 acres (about 10 hectates). He says the vignerons in the region are blessed to have the latinos for the harvest, and he personally wants the pickers to know that their part of the work is very important (as they do not see the wine, he has to tell them) in the whole wine process. He also does custom crush for other people. The service companies which work along the year in the vineyard are also very important. He changed the vineyard management company in 2001 and this was a very good move. He could see the result as soon as 6 months later : Even though 2001 was a good millesime elsewhere too, he credits the new vineyard management for his excellent results. This company knows so well his vineyard that he does'nt even have to tell them when to start the different tasks.
We taste now :
__1 Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (bottled opened for us). 13° Fresh nose. Clear wine with greenish reflections. The plot is on the right side of the private road [see upper picture] . 21st vintage for this plot, same wine every year, more or so. The wine has a nice length in the mouth. He says the strategy for Sauvignon Blanc is to look for the last ripe grape under the canopee to have the whole harvest ready. He harvests a little earlier than many around to pick some acidity, because he is not looking for the "big" Sauvignon Blanc. He wants something more refined, as he sometimes feels that Sauvignons Blancs just taste different oaks... The wine fermented 5 weeks with Champagne-type yeasts and temp control in stainless steel (only). 10 minutes after : gained some richness. Bottled in april (his customers would like to have it bottled in march).
__2 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. He has 4 different C.S. from different plots. They are still in separate casks. Most ofv his C.S. is from clone 7. Black fruits on the nose. Straight. Nice mouth.
__3 Other Cabernet Sauvignon. Rockpile plot. More round, ample. Older block of vines (they use more "block" than "plot", by the way, around here), but not far away from the others. More volume of this wine, will be a major component of the blend. Maybe more alcohol in this one, B. says.
__4 Cabernet Sauvignon. 3rd block. Different clone here. Tannicity. Nice length in the mouth. He used to have 3 Cabernets, now he has 4 and it make the blend choice more scary. And in the future, there will be more Cabernet, plus Syrah, along Bordeaux Meritage blends... Speaking of the powerful "big wines", it is not really his style, but he actually makes some to see what he can do with the blend. He tries there to give the AH! wine style, the fruit bombs that people want, but also a wine that can age well. He says tha between 1985 and 1995, there has been a pH hike (a big hike). Real alcohol level around here is a big lie because the authorized error is high.
[You can read this in an article by Eric Asimov in the New York Times :
"Figures like 13.8 percent, by the way, are not as accurate as they seem. A wine below 14 percent, according to federal regulations, has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent. Above 14 percent, the margin of error is reduced to 1 percent. And for reasons that are more arcane than scientific, the federal government taxes wines above 14 percent at a higher rate ($1.57 a gallon) than those 14 percent or lower ($1.07). Winemakers seem not to care."]
He also witnessed a pH hike and also waited a few days more for harvest, going against his instinct. He regrets that "finesse", "nuances", "feminine" are words and adjectives you cannot use anymore to speak about wines around here.
He asks about what we want to taste now. Alder asks about his Syrah. He says that Merlot is better for tasting now. So, let's go!
__5 Merlot 2005. From a cask. He did not taste it during the last 3 months. Animal nose. Cherry, leather, B. says. This is their normal Merlot wine. They made Saignée Merlot last year.
__6 Syrah 2004. Pepper on the nose, spicy. 2nd vintage for this one. Liquorice. Very nice mouth for these young vines. Alder loves it! Tom offers to taste from a bottle :
__7 Merlot 1995. Orchard block. Mostly dying vines, actually (they don't replace the vines). Tom says he may convert the place in an orchard in the future. Jack finds the wine too young...[B. and me still remember the great Cabernet Sauvignon_Jordan 1978_ he poured us yesterday] but Alder likes as it is now...Debate in the blogosphere ! Tom says that his Merlot 1993 drinks very well now. I would say this one is peaking, but still loves it, even after 10 minutes. Great long mouth.
__8 Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. Bottle. The 2001 is on the market already. There is a tiny % of Merlot in it. 13°. Nice (long) mouth. B. likes this type of wine. After a few minutes, a great chewy feeling. No filtering, no fining of course, Tom says fining is the biggest devil : it takes away the middle of the body in the wine. His approach is : as soon as it goes hard, he presses off the next day. He throws away the saignée juice. He jokes, saying there is a business to start here in the region, by recovering all the saignée juices at all the wineries (nobody keeps them). He says it is crazy to just throw it away, but that's the way it is...
Thank you Tom (and Alder) for this visit !