Friday, October 12, 2007

Winery Watch: Navarro Vineyards

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

Tucked into the hills just off Highway 128 in Mendocino County is a winery that produces cult wines for the common person. Navarro Vineyards is something of a cult favorite among people like you and me--folks who like fine wine, who appreciate when wine reflects the place where the grapes are grown and the varieties that go into it, and who don't want to spend an absolute fortune to drink it. Thanks to Ted Bennett and his partner in life and work, Deborah Cahn, it's been possible for ordinary people to drink extraordinary wine ever since they started Navarro Vineyards in 1974.

When Ted and Deborah began working the land and planting their vineyards, vineyards were few and far between in the Anderson Valley. They took over a former sheep ranch, and planted unfashionable varieties for the time, such as pinot noir, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, chardonnay, muscat blanc, and riesling. If this makes you think "Alsace," there is a reason. Ted and Deborah love the wines of that region, and they are perfectly suited to the Anderson Valley's soil and climate. Critics agree. The wines are regularly praised by Dan Berger, who frequently includes specific bottlings in the recommendations he makes for exciting and high value wines in Tom Stevenson's annual Wine Report (ps., the new edition is just released, so you may want to pick up the 2008 Wine Report now).

Today Navarro Vineyards is still a family affair, with Ted and Deborah working alongside their children Aaron and Sarah. If you are lucky enough to visit, you will feel like family too as you are welcomed into the friendly tasting room, given complimentary tours and pours, and lead over the hills, past the llamas, and into the rooms where the huge oak casks hold the wine until its ready to be bottled and sold to consumers like you and me. This is a working farm, run by people who love the land and live as lightly as possible on it, using cover crops and sheep to enrich the soil instead of chemical fertilizers. (photo of Ted, Deborah, Aaron, and Sarah, along with their beloved dachshund, from Navarro Vineyards)

Navarro Vineyards devotees are usually members of the Pre-Release Club, which delivers a personal stash of Navarro wines to you each June and December at 10-33% discounts. The friends I visited the vineyard with late this summer are members of the club, and were able to pick up some of their wines while they were there. They were even kind enough to share a bottle of Navarro's special pinot noir, the Deep-End Blend, with me over dinner after our day out in the Anderson Valley.

Below you will find my tasting notes for the wines I tasted recently at the vineyard. Prices indicated here are the suggested retail prices at the winery; as always the price you pay may be higher or lower at your local merchant. Clicking on a wine's name takes you either to a list of merchants who stock the wine, or to Navarro's online store where you can order what you want and have them shipped directly to you as long as your state allows it. Navarro wines can be hard to find in retail stores, because Ted and Deborah prefer to keep their prices low, cut out the middle-men and middle-women, and sell directly to their customers. With wine this good, and prices this reasonable, who can argue with their plan?

2005 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir ($18) I promised you I would tell you when I found a really good pinot noir under $20. I found it, and I'm telling you, this is excellent QPR. Rose aromas and juicy black cherry fruit usher you into the equally juice cherry flavors. There is medium toast on the mid-palate and a good balance already for a young wine between fruit, spice, and acidity. Not as complex as the Methode a l'Ancienne pinot noir, but a great deal for the price.

2004 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir "Méthode à l'Ancienne" ($25-$35) Really impressed with this year's bottling. I tasted nuts and earth, along with mushroomy and truffley notes, that accent the core of bright acidity and cherry fruit. I think it will age very, very nicely. Excellent QPR.

2005 Navarro Vineyards Navarrouge ($12) Eight red varietals, including syrah, cabernet, pinot noir, and carignan go into this excellent QPR wine that should be a leading contender for your house red. Cherry blossom aromas, black cherry flavors with a fair amount of oak in the midpalate, but it's interesting and flavorful. I suspect it will be even better in 4-8 months. This is one to buy by the case and just have on hand for when friends drop by at the holidays.

2006 Navarro Vineyards Edelzwicker ($12). A lovely wine for the money, made from riesling, gewurztraminer, and pinot gris grapes. Enticing flower aromas, with a palate of litchi and lime. Our favorite wine to have with Thanksgiving leftovers, or for any holiday lunch, don't be surprised when this turns up on my holiday wine picks this year. Excellent QPR.

2005 Navarro Vineyards Muscat Estate Bottled Dry (around $18 if you can find it). This is a wild, wild wine with pure orange blossom aromas and a searingly crisp and dry lemony palate and finish. Very clean wine, and schizophrenic in a good way--or at least a way that works! Perfect for sushi with wasabi. Very good QPR.

2004 Navarro Vineyards Syrah ($22) Huckleberry and cranberry dominate the fruity notes in this syrah. Good acidity, but I would prefer to taste more spice. I think this wine will continue to develop, though. Good QPR.

2005 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Deep End Blend (price N/A). This wine has a lot of potential and is already drinking beautifully. High-toned cherry and cinnamon on first opening, with a dark ruby color. As it opens up notes of cedar, cocoa powder, and blackberry enter into the palate and aromas. Continued to develop and gain complexity as we drained the bottle. Wait a year and check again, but I think this one will age well and develop in interesting ways. This will be expensive if you can get it (as in more than $40), but it is an awfully complex pinot and good QPR.

2003 Navarro Vineyards Riesling ($18-$19). Very good dry riesling with apple and apricot fruit and a little tropical fruit lift in the midpalate. This resembles a German kabinett, but lacks the mineral dimension to make it outstanding. Good QPR.

2006 Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Deep End Blend (Barrel sample; not yet released). Beautiful color and pinot texture on this wine, with rich cherry flavors and nice cedary notes underneath with some earth, mushroom, and thyme. Lots of acidity now, giving the wine the structure that promises great things to come. Will be more than $40 if you can get it, but in time it is likely to be worth every penny. Good QPR.

Navarro Vineyards has a great website, with detailed information on every wine that they make. They also answer their email, so if you have a question or want to check to see if they have any bottles of that dry muscat hanging around, don't hesitate to drop them a line or give them a call. If you are a Navarro fan, feel free to leave notes about your own favorites in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

Great post for a great winery. I have loved this place for years. I'm not sure how long stuff this good will stay under wraps.

They do, however, seem like a great candidate for WineQ. We'll have to get Marshall to sign them up!

RougeAndBlanc said...

Dr Debs,
What vintage is the Deep End that you tasted? Care to share tasting notes?
The price of this bottling is right up with the high end 1er Cru Burgundies.
How do you feel about it? Is it worth 3 times the price over Méthode à l'Ancienne?

Dr. Debs said...

Great idea about WineQ, Joel. That would be a coup for the Q.

And Rouge and Blanc, the bottle we had was the 2005 Deep End Blend, and the notes are there in the post. We drank it alongside a 2001 Girardin Vosne-Romanee that we suspected had a bit of heat damage. Nevertheless, we all felt that the 2005 Deep End was going to blow it out of the water in another year or two.

Is it 3x better than Methode a L'Ancienne? Hard to say. It is different, for sure. The earth and mushroom of the MA were very nice and complex in their own right, but nothing like the cinnamon, cocoa, and cedar that accompanied the fruit in the Deep End. Also, I've never aged either wine--and I do anticipate both will gain in complexity and become more integrated over time.

Are you on their mailing list? I don't think the Deep End is available outside the winery, but I could be wrong about that.

Richard Auffrey said...

I saw the 2006 Navarro Gewurtztraminer is listed in the new Food & Wine (11/07) as a Thanksgiving recommendation.

I have also been a fan of the Wine Report for several years. I especially like their Unusual wine lists, though it is usually difficult to find the wines. My copy of the 2008 Report is on route to me from B&N and I should have it anyday now.

Richard Auffrey said...

Speaking of the Wine Report, the 2008 arrived today in the mail.

Richard Auffrey said...

The 2008 Wine Report is very good for Navarro. They are listed as #1 in the Greatest Wine Producers List. #2 is Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and #3 is Dutton Goldfield.

The 2005 Navarro Muscat Blanc is listed as one of their Greatest-Quality Wines.

The 2005 Navarro Edelzwicker is listed as a Best Bargain.

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks for this news, Richard. I am always happy to be found in agreement with Dan Berger! The Muscat Blanc is a really interesting wine and I highly recommend it if you can locate some. Very unusual. I reviewed the navarro gewurz on the site previously, so didn't include it in this post but you can find it by looking under "gewurztraminer."

Anonymous said...

Sadly the 06 Muscat Blanc is sold out (shame on you for telling everyone before we drove up last week to get our club bottles). My wife and I thought it was the star of the year, though we have 3 of the 05's. Only a few of those are left I believe.

Agree on your notes. If you like Navarro's Pinot's I suggest visiting Milla Handley's place just down the road.