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Treasures of California cult winemakers
By John H. Isacs

GAINING insight into the universe necessitates understanding not only the very big, but also the very small. The wine world is the same.

While big may be impressive, small is often better. In last week's column, I covered two Napa Valley pioneer wineries, Beringer and Robert Mondavi.

These large wineries make great wines, but to taste the beautiful diversity of Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County you also have to experience wines of some of the smallest producers. In this week's column I'll feature four small winemakers who make irresistibly delicious wines that are available in Shanghai.

Napa Valley cult wines caught the world's attention during the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000 when a six-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle was sold for US$500,000.

Today many of the most exciting wines in Napa Valley are made by small companies that don't even own a winery. Some own their own vineyards while others buy grapes from premium growers. Then with the care of a parent and the passion of an artist they make their wines at independent wineries.

The results can be staggeringly good. Last month I met with the owners and representatives of three companies who have quickly built reputations as some of Napa Valley's best small winemakers. This next generation of cult wines is blazing new paths in terms of quality and originality.

From the inaugural 2006 vintage, Moone-Tsai has been making some of Napa Valley's most lusciously delicious Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Moone-Tsai is a joint venture between Mike Moone, former president of Beringer Vineyards, and Mary Ann and Larry Tsai. Ann worked with Moone at Beringer and is one of Napa's most accomplished businesswomen.

Tsai is a first-generation Chinese-American with extensive business experience. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention Philippe Melka, the winemaker from France who has worked at Chateaux Haut Brion and Petrus as well as top California producer Ridge Vineyards. Together this accomplished quartet is making powerful, yet also graceful red wines that are best described as wines that deliver an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Tsai guided my group on a tasting of the latest releases of his wines. While red wines have put Moone-Tsai firmly on the wine map and won acclaim, the first wine we tasted was a stylish 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay with lovely minerality and acidity. The tasting switched into high gear with the latest releases of Moone-Tsai's red wines.

We tasted the 2008 vintage of the flagship Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2008 Howell Mountain Hillside Blend and 2008 Cor Leonis Cabernet Sauvignon. All were unmistakably Napa Valley wines in terms of weight and substance but they also featured beautiful balance and structure reminiscent of top Bordeaux.

My tasting with winemaker and owner Scott Palazzo of Palazzo Wines was one of the highlights of my Napa trip. Held in the relaxed environment of Palazzo's home in Napa Valley we tasted three remarkable wines - the 2008 Proprietary Red, 2009 Cabernet Franc, and finally the 2010 Cuvee Blanc.

Three decades ago Palazzo lived and worked in Saint Emilion on the right bank of Bordeaux so unlike most top Napa producers who are Cabernet Sauvignon centric, Palazzo's wines are more about the special charm and elegance of the Merlot and Cabernet Franc varieties.

The mostly Merlot Proprietary Red launched everything for Palazzo, quickly becoming a fixture on a who's who list of the most famous restaurants in the United States. The 100-percent Cabernet Franc was my favorite and easily the best Cabernet Franc wine I've tasted this side of Cheval Blanc, which is actually a blend.

Reflecting the terrior of Napa Valley, these two reds were quite substantial but they also featured the supple and graceful qualities of Saint Emilion wines. My favorite may have been the Cabernet Franc but the biggest surprise was the Cuvee Blanc. Somewhat shockingly made with 85-percent Semillon and only 15-percent Sauvignon Blanc, the wine combined an impressive depth of flavor and intensity with wonderful freshness.

Only 224 cases of the 2010 Cuvee were produced so you have to be very lucky to get your hands on a bottle. Palazzo's charismatic personality and unique counter-intuitive approach is what typifies Palazzo wines and helps make them so delicious.

D.R. Stephens Estates is yet another story. Owned by the founder and CEO of the Bank of San Francisco, this small producer now makes some of Napa's most prized wines.

In the tranquil elegance of the country estate's dining room, we tasted a fresh and balanced 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay, a raspberry scented, deeply flavored white wine, a deeply flavored and expressive 2008 DR II Cabernet Sauvignon, and a structured and elegant 2008 Moose Valley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The white wine and two reds all exhibited an ideal combination of new world exuberance and old world charm.

When I think of Sonoma County's best wines, I think of Iron Horse Vineyards. Unlike the aforementioned Napa boutique producers, Iron Horse makes wines at their own winery from fruit harvested from hillside vineyards.

The winery and vineyards are among the prettiest in Sonoma. The still wines of this family-owned estate are beautifully crafted, but the crown jewels of Iron Horse are their superb sparkling wines. In my opinion the sparkling wines of Iron Horse are the best sparklers made in the new world. I believe my assessment is objective, but this story is also personal.

Well before they purchased Iron Horse in 1976, my parents met Audrey and Barry Sterling on the luxury ocean liner, the S.S. France, and started a beautiful friendship of wine, great food and refined entertainment. Second-generation Joy Sterling now runs Iron Horse and this very talented and accomplished lady has taken the winery to new heights.

Overlooking the stunningly beautiful hills of Sonoma, Joy guided our group from China on a tasting of the estate's still and sparkling wines.

Space prohibits me from introducing all the wines, but some of the standout wines that demand mention were the Iron Horse 2008 Wedding Cuvee, a wonderfully romantic and generous 85 percent Pinot Noir and 15 percent Chardonnay sparkler, the 2007 Brut X, a bracingly dry and stimulating 75-percent Pinot Noir and 25-percent Chardonnay wine, the deeply colored and wildly flavorful 2006 Brut Rose and the 2006 Russian Cuvee that features a touch more sweetness.

The Russian Cuvee was made for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1986 that ended the Cold War, and undoubtedly this sparkling charmer played a role in lessening tensions between the leaders. Since then every US President since Ronald Reagan has served Iron Horse wines at the White House and other official functions.

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