Robert Mondavi Winery founder Robert Mondavi and his wife Margaret enjoy a quiet moment together in Napa Valley.
ABOUT an hour drive out of San Francisco is one of the world's premier wine regions. Napa Valley is arguably the best wine region in the United States, making a wide range of high-quality white, red and sparkling wines.
The region features a majestic landscape with rolling hills and mountains warmed by intense sunlight but importantly cooled by the moist evening breezes flowing in from the Pacific Ocean. Last week I had the delicious privilege to visit Napa Valley and taste some truly memorable wines.
Several wineries have played important roles in the evolution of Napa Valley from an Indian reserve to premier wine region. Names like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Kendell Jackson, Joseph Phelps, Cardinale and others jump to mind but two names that truly stand out from the crowd of big-name Napa producers are Beringer Vineyards and Robert Mondavi Winery.
Without the pioneering roles of these two wineries, Napa Valley would almost certainly not have reached the illustrious reputation it enjoys today. Most importantly, these two historic wineries still make some of Napa Valley's and the world's best wines.
Jacob Beringer arrived in the US in 1860 from Mainz, Germany. He enticed his brother to join him and in 1876 the brothers established Beringer Vineyards. Jacob had experience working in the wine cellars of the Rhine Valley. Together they started to cultivate the volcanic rocky, well-drained soils of his new estate.
Today Beringer Vineyards is the oldest continuous operating winery in Napa Valley making a wide range of wines from affordable everyday wines to super premium collector wines.
Another impressive aspect about this property is the Victorian mansion called the Rhine House that was completed in 1884. With a few Chinese friends we conducted our tasting of Beringer wines in the 17-room mansion, which still features the beautiful original stained-glass windows.
In the resplendent beauty of our Rhine House room with natural light gracefully permeating the stained-glass windows, we tasted some of Beringer's best wines, including a stylish Sauvignon Blanc and limited edition Chardonnay as well as a terrific Nightingale Semillon Sauvignon noble rot sweet white wine. This sweet wine is one of the very few botrytis, a fungus, or noble rot wines made in Napa Valley.
But the most impressive wines we tasted were three different vintages of their acclaimed Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon red wines. Starting with a 1991 Private Reserve that showed its maturity with a brick red color but also had plenty of stewed fruit and supple tannins we moved on to a terrific 1996 Private Reserve that was more muscular with fresher fruit and stimulating palate coating tannins.
Finally we tasted the great 2007 vintage of the same wine which featured abundant concentrated black fruit flavors and strong yet still remarkably soft tannins.
The elegant maturity of the 1991 wine made it my favorite though the terrific 2007 wine will eventually be the best of the bunch as it sheds its tannins and develops more complexity. This trio of reds was among the very best wines I tasted on my Napa Valley journey.
Robert Mondavi Winery
After a somewhat contentious breaking with his older brother who headed the Charles Krug Winery, in 1966 Robert Mondavi, at the age of 53, founded the apply named Robert Mondavi Winery. And as we are fond of saying in English, "the rest is history."
Perhaps more than any other individual, Mondavi helped bring modern Napa Valley wines to prominence. His commitment to quality and charismatic personality made him the greatest US wine ambassador of his era. When he died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 94, the wine world lost one of its true giants.