Saturday, February 26, 2011

Premiere Napa Valley 2011: a mix of snow, Gypsy campfires, little Blackbirds and a touch of Einstein

1. The bust of Albert Einstein in the sculpture garden at Ma(i)sonry
2. live twitter telecast screens hover over the vertical barrel lot tasting at Greystone
3. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn
4. Blackbird Proprietor Michael Polenske holds court at the Ma(i)sonry luncheon
5. Snow clouds gather over Napa Valley to little effect

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Napa Valley, California—An early forecast of snow showers over Mount St. Helena, a first in more than a decade, preceded by a spectacular celestial event, the appearance of the Big Dipper in all its night-time glory, lent an air of excitement to the opening day of Premiere Napa 2011.

Early morning fog and gathering storm clouds gave way to a spectacular, sun-drenched day as tasters headed to the hallowed halls of Greystone, the former monastery that once housed Christian Brothers winery, and is now the home to the Culinary Institute of America, where the blind tasting of vertical Napa Valley barrel lots was about to begin. The lots consist of wines that are handcrafted by winemakers specifically for the Premiere Napa Valley Auction. The auction is perhaps the world’s most expensive bake sale, in support of the non-profit Napa Valley Vintner’s Association.

Each year, the 200 member wineries craft a unique lot of wine that represent the best they have to offer. Only the handful of wine journalists and bidders who are members of the wine trade will get to taste these unique wines which will be purchased at auction the following day for staggeringly high prices.

As the sun continued to reign over a gold-encrusted day, a series of private wine luncheons and tastings unfolded at wineries up and down the Napa Valley. The first stop of the day was a private luncheon at Ma(i)sonry, the private art collective and wine showcase run by Blackbird Vineyards. Proprietor Michael Polenske and Winemaker Aaron Pott hosted about a dozen wine journalists from across the country for a tasting of the wines of the 2011 portfolio. The wines have been consistently rated 93 and 94 points by Robert Parker and 100 Points by the Robb Report. The wines, 2010 Blackbird Vineyards Arriviste Rose ($24), 2008 Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley Marsanne ($32) and 2008 Napa Valley Tempranillo $50), were paired with the cuisine of Cindy Pawlcyn Catering (Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Go Fish) with Chef Michael Foster. The Arriviste Rose was paired with her Seared Scallops with “spring baby vegetable stew”, which brought out the crisp strawberry and cherry notes on the palate and the aromatic nose of spice and grapefruit that are so prevalent in this vibrant pink melding of Merlot and Cabernet France varietals. Winemaker Aaron Pott said the blend was inspired by the pink wine that was passed around in plastic liter bottles by the Gypsy grape workers in France as they danced around their campfires at night.

A perfectly pink Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Roasted shallots, red wine poached prunes & potato gratin wrapped around the profuse flavors of orange zest and honeydew melon that mark this aromatic blend of Rhone Valley-inspired varietals.

“France is the Rosetta Stone of wine,” remarked Proprietor Michael Polenske. “What we’ve tried to do at Blackbird is produce a Right Bank blend that is ‘inspired by’ but not imitating the French. What we want to create is a wine that is uniquely Napa Valley, that also has balance and is beautifully integrated.” Job, well done!

“What a lot of people don’t know, not even people in the wine business,” Polenske further explicated, “is that the word Merlot is French for ‘little black bird,’ so that’s how the name of our winery came about. The name Ma(i)sonry is an homage to the winemakers art blended with the idea of the bricks and mortar of the building itself.”

Now, here’s where Einstein comes in. The sculpture garden of Ma(i)sonry is dominated by a whimsical bust of Einstein that sits at the head of a long, wooden dining table that is more of a showcase for the artwork that is interwoven around the space at Ma(i)sonry. “The whole idea behind Ma(i)sonry is that we are pairing artisan wines with exquisite art in an historic setting. The building was actually discovered by my mother and I one day after we were having lunch,” Polenske explained. “It took a lot of jousting with the city over permits to get it restored to what it is today, but I think after a time they got the idea that we were actually improving the building and making it even more of what it once was. “

The afternoon luncheon was capped with a Cheese Course featuring a local gathering of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Fiscalmi Cloth Bound Cheddar and Cow Girl Creamery Red Hawk, paired with 2008 Blackbird Vineyards Arise ($50), a stunning 100% Merlot from grapes sourced in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley in what was once a walnut orchard. The wine has a tantalizing aroma of Bing cherries and cassis with hints of plum and baking spices, intertwined with fine tannin that gives it a chewy, mild palate. I found myself swirling it around my mouth, as I tasted bits of the Humboldt Fog cheese.

More about those "little Blackbirds." Polenske sent every home with a Blackbird Vineyards Flock Box Collection ($48), which consists of six 50ml bottles representing each of the wines in the Blackbird portfolio. The idea is to allow the buyer to taste the wines, at a fraction of the cost, without having to invest in a full bottle. The Flock Box earned a coveted spot in O Magazine’s “O List” Holiday Gift Guide. Needless to say, the Flock Box is a hit.

About that snow, it finally materialized in a cloudy mist high over Howell Mountain just as the afternoon barrel tasting of lots from the Oak Knoll District was underway at Peju winery. It appeared off in the distance looking like a mist of clouds on the far horizon, just as the afternoon sun was setting. It made for a nice photo op as I lifted a glass of Cakebread Cellars 2009 Red Wine Blend, Lot No. 10 in the 2011 Premiere Napa Valley Auction catalog. Pretty!

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