“Catching Up”

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A statue outside of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, founded by Warren Winiarski, whose 1973 Stag’s Leap S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon won the 1976 Judgement of Paris. In the background above the vineyards, fire damage from the 2017 fires that threatened the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The statue appears unscathed.

Yesterday was… what is the word again… oh, yes, perfect. I don’t think going into it that I even realized just how wonderfully laid my plans were, or how they’d come together, but it was truly a terrific day, made so by the people I spent it with. Herein this morning, I want to briefly pay homage to each of them, to the time we spent catching up with one another, and to the day as a whole.

It began when Kaleb, and old friend from Omaha who has been working as a sommelier in the Napa Valley for the past year, picked me up and together we went to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. After narrowly avoiding backing over a flock of cyclists on the tight and winding Yount Mill Road, we spent the morning sipping at the exquisite and award winning wines made by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and catching up on one another’s personal lives. Our host at SLWC, Kaleigh, was an outstanding guide through the history of the winery as well as the inimitable and elegant wines being made at the historic Napa winery. With the eastern mountains of the Napa Valley and a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard as a backdrop, the morning passed quickly, and Kaleb and I parted making plans to meet up for dinner again on Thursday.

It was great to finally visit the place. A few years ago, I was interviewed by NBC for an article on the wine tasting that SLWC famously won. Read that piece here: https://itheewine.com/2016/05/24/mark-featured-in-nbc-news-article-on-the-judgement-of-paris/

For lunch, I drove my rented Ford Fiesta deep into the Chiles Valley AVA on the eastern side of the Valley, its two cylinder lawn mower engine struggling audibly to get us up the tight and winding roads that lead to some of Napa’s best and most out of the way wine growing properties. After a wrong turn that landed me at Chappellet, where I might otherwise have enjoyed sticking around, I found myself on the top of a mountain overlooking the valley, with gorgeous old trees and nothing but mountains surrounding us for miles. There, I was reunited with Catherine and Alexander Eisele, two of the hardest working, most honest, and most good natured people I have ever met. It had been a few years since I had seen them, but it felt as if we hadn’t missed a beat since our last conversation, which took place in their historic winery just down the road. Upon my arrival, Catherine poured us each a glass of Gemini, a fantastic white wine blend made by the Volker Eisele Family Estate winery that you absolutely have to try if you haven’t before, and we sat outside on the patio, having lunch, admiring the breathtaking vistas, and catching up on everything from local politics to the wine industry to one another’s lives. It was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable afternoons I’ve spent in the Valley, and we parted with my telling them I hoped they’d visit me in Nebraska soon.

I fell in love with the Volker Eisele Family Estate the first time I visited. It was a combination of place, people, and wine that made me a lifelong fan. Read what I wrote for American Winery Guide after that visit here: https://itheewine.com/2016/04/15/volker-eisele-family-estate-review/

My rented lawnmower performed far better on the drive back down the mountains, and half an hour later I made it to the John Anthony Vineyards tasting room on First Street in the city of Napa. The last time I had visited was two years ago — I had just passed my WSET Level I exam at the Napa Valley Wine Academy, the same day that Elie Wiesel, whom I had known for many years, had passed away. I was in an odd mood that day, but Rick behind the counter had helped me to refocus on the beauty of life, as together we chatted about Husker football (he’s a fan), wine, children, and more. Yesterday when I walked in, Rick again greeted me, and we spent a good bit of time catching up, eventually transitioning to eager dialogue about the high hopes that all Husker fans hold for the advent of the Scott Frost era. Go. Big. Red. After a spell, we were joined by Dallas, with whom I had communicated for years on various topics and finally got to meet. Dallas updated me on all of the utterly amazing projects that John Anthony Vineyards is up to, including purchasing the Church Vineyard and an eleven-room bed and breakfast in Napa. It’s exciting stuff, and I was grateful for the chance to learn.

After my first visit to the tasting room, I reviewed JAV. You can read the full story at this link: https://itheewine.com/2017/02/10/john-anthony-vineyards-review/

It was then time for dinner. I’d been looking forward to this dinner since we scheduled it months ago. Jean Hoefliger, whom I had met when writing a piece about him for Vivino, has become a good friend of mine. He makes amazing wines at Alpha Omega, also at Tolosa, and everywhere from Priorat to Italy and beyond. His philosophy on life and the part that wine plays in our society have greatly influenced my own beliefs, and there is never a shortage of laughter when Jean is at the table. Last night, I was privileged to meet Chelsea, his partner, and together we whiled away several hours at Zuzu, a terrific little tapas place, snacking and sipping and laughing the evening away. It was wonderful catching up with Jean; I’d end every day that way if I could.

The piece I wrote for Vivino from my first meeting with Jean is available at this link: https://itheewine.com/2016/09/07/behind-the-wine-jean-hoefliger-and-the-debate/

Something about the day had provided me with energy. As the sun disappeared and we stepped out of Zuzu, I wasn’t quite sure what I was about to do, but I didn’t feel like heading home just yet. Taking a left on First street, I quickly found my answer when I saw the familiar sign for Vermeil Wines. As a Kansas City Chiefs fan, Dick Vermeil is one of my heroes, not only for his on field success, but for his kind and gentlemanly demeanor and the dignity with which he does all things. I first visited this tasting room years ago, but looking at the doors propped open I knew that was where my nightcap was waiting for me. I stepped inside and was greeted by Eric, whom I had never met but was instantly drawn to. Over the course of the next hour, I tasted some of the fantastic new wines coming out from Vermeil, and chatted with Eric about his long career in the wine industry. A wealth of knowledge, Eric is truly passionate about Vermeil’s wines, and  I hope that if you visit the tasting room you get to meet him for yourself.

I love Dick Vermeil, and I love wine, so it’s a natural fit. You can read my American Winery Guide review of Vermeil wines at the link that follows, but do know that the tasting room has undergone serious rebranding, and no longer has the “sports bar” feel it once didhttps://itheewine.com/2016/04/29/vermeil-wines-review/

At last I headed home, my heart full from a day spent in the company of so many wonderful people. The one fault in the day may be that I was so consistently engaged at all times that, looking back, I took almost no pictures. A part of me wishes I had photographs with all of the terrific folk I spent the day with, though the other part of me relishes the notion that I was so engaged in the moment that it didn’t even occur to me to take my phone out most of the time. My memories — and these words — will be what I hold on to from a day spent catching up.

Cheers to the people that enrich our lives,

Mark

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