We shoot up the 29, rain phasing in and out, twiggy vineyards in various stages of pruning, grassy greeness everywhere:
But then, this jumps out at us:
This is Napa. Showing off is survival out here. But hey! A founding winery like Beringer, rich with history and popularity with its white zinfandel need not drop to such levels….
We start at their fabulous Victorian Estate.
The Rhine House cost Freddy B a cool $28,000 to build. The cool thing is, it is not a museum. We can walk right in. On the left, tea rooms with original tiled fireplaces, dark woodwork, and stained glass provide a gift shop. On the right, a dining parlor has become a tasting room.
But first our tour.
We meet in another tasting room/gift shop. All signs and displays up front push their “serious” wines and wine club. Then I spot the white zin relegated to a sad display corner off of the tasting bar and behind a wall.
Outside, after checking out decorative vines flaunting downy budbreak, we enter the original 1876 winery: all stone and simple arches like a Romanesque wall. Inside, we find a winery like any in Europe dating back to the 1400s.
The Beringers came from Germany, having made beer, and with them brought Riesling and fortified wine to a market of gold prospecting cowboys and new money. Long before air-conditioning, they cut into the volcanic cliff to cellar their wines.
Rain drips and collects into drains. Empty barrels decorate the walls. Winemaker portraits on digital frames line a tunnel. Sure, this is for tourists. The modern winery churns bottles out across the street. But the shadow, the legacy of these moldy walls still hangs over Beringer.
This deep purple youngin is already quite approachable. Dark aromas of beet juice, blackberry jam, dried spearmint, anise and tobacco all bounce about the tweaky acidity, chunky cocoa tannin, higher alcohol and body. Flavors taste more serious with dusty, blackberry fruit leather, hot coals, tobacco leaf (good, 3 of 5).
But our pairing tasting awaits. We sit in a bright white room, preset with wines and pairings.
We cover the basics of how salt, sour, and sweet modify one’s contextualized perception of wine. But our guide seems a bit on auto-pilot. Even though the couple from Kentucky may be wine-novices, they know cooking, pairing, and vintage variation.
The 2013 Private Reserve, Napa, Chardonnay sees 100% French oak fermentation and 100% mlf and somehow, oddly, manages to taste and smell of lemon pith beyond the classic cream, almond, and honey. Acidification? It feels fat, plump, rip, but acid from nowhere slices it. It is good (3 of 5), actually really well balanced, but seems unnatural. $46
The 2013 Napa Cabernet “club exclusive” of 500 cases and $60 looks a dark ruby inky with chucking huge aromas of black cherry liquor, raspberry jam, toast and caramel. It is rich, dusty, and tannic like licking corduroy. It is very good (4 of 5) and improves with salt, sucks with lemon, tastes meh with the grape, and horrific with the bonbon.
2010’s Nightingale $40 dessert wine of botrytised Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc is sweet, plump candied orange peal, caramel, honey and citrus. Beringer isolated the botrytis mold. Today, the pick grapes, place them on mats, spray them with botrytis and water to allow the mold to desiccate the grapes into sugary, Sauternes-esque, desert. But without Sauternes’ miserable weather, Nightingale tastes sweet but flat (3 of 5).
Our guide mentions their wine club ($1 per bottle???), special pricing, et cetera, but we all know we can’t buy anything today.
Done, wife and I scoot back to the tasting bar.
2012 Quantum (which means small btw) Red blend of impressiveness looks rich ruby, smells of pure blueberry syrup, light toast, caramel, and blue cheese. It feels dry, dusty, but fleshy enough with brighter flavors of orange peal, green bell pepper and that blue fruit. Very good (4 of 5).
Time to get serious. 2012 Marston Vineyard, Cabernet, in Spring Mountain AVA has a bright beautiful ruby color, dry, soft, plush tannins medium body and sneaky warm alcohol. Aromas and flavors play a fun, meaty venison-like brett, dough, vanilla, and salted medium plus finish. Very good (4 of 5) and probably the most interesting of the bunch.
Next 2009 vs 2012 Private Reserve.
2009’s Private Reserve Cab shows its age with garnet framing a still deep ruby core. Heady aromas of mulled wine, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and cracked bell pepper dominate, after swirling, ripe plum jam, black tea, and graphite. 2009 is all nose. Its Palate falls apart, with a particulate, mealy texture and flavors of red apple skin, cedar, and fruit leather. Very good nonetheless (4 of 5), but please drink it now.
2012’s Private Reserve Cabernet…the “96pt Cab” Parker loved. Well, it looks a dense ruby. At first smells of salt, clay, wood, then swirled, smells of equal parts fruit and oak: fresh raspberry sauce, light tobacco and roasted coffee, with a light orange peel. It is dry, acids moderate, tannins strong yet soft and balancing, warm, and medium plus bodied. Flavors tend dryer and darker, blackberry fruit leather, toasted oak et cetera. 2012’s PR Cab is outstanding (5 of 5), made to be approachable now, but young and in need of five years.
Can Beringer break their white zin curse? Not yet. Our server shrugs sadly when mentioning it. Chasing crazy scores from Parker and building a wine club seem to be their route out of infamy. But I doubt it will change public perception yet. Offering crazy discounts also devalues the product. Amazing as the Reserve wines are, they are risk averse. There is too much similarity in labeling and the safe, approachable wine style to get the world to pay more for their higher tiers.
The visit is amazing. The Rhine House charming. But we leave facing the beige winery where the wine Beringer actually makes their wine.