Sunday, June 05, 2005

“Tasting Judd’s Hill a 1,000 feet up,”

Part 3 of 3, By John Olney, Copyright , June 2, 2005. All rights reserved.

Well, another gorgeous day in Napa Valley, California, and even better yet in Conn Valley, located just to the east of the town of St. Helena. About an hour ago I meet with Susan Greene of Seavey Vineyards and winery. Adjacent to this property, right at the intersection of Conn Valley Road and the Seavey driveway, stands the old C. Crochet & Co. buildings which went by the name “Franco-Swiss Winery” when it first operated back in the 1880s. Much to my surprise, I learned that the original property was divided among family members way back in the history of the land and well before the Seavey’s came to town in the 1970s. It turns out that the old ghost winery is not part of Seavey’s property, but belongs to another property owner across the way from the Seavey‘s. I’ll be reporting on this and subsequent visits to Seavey Vineyards in the near future.

Right now I’m on my way back up to Judd’s Hill to taste wine and discuss the Finkelstein’s plans for their new winery operation under construction along Silverado Trail, near the intersection with Hardman, just northeast of the City of Napa. They plan to open this new site in the fall of this year.

This time I reached the winery without disturbing any neighbors. However just one long curve in the narrow road before the driveway to Judd’s Hill, I ran into commuter gridlock! Just ahead of me was the same UPS delivery guy and a passenger car who were suddenly stopped and maneuvering to allow a couple of cars coming down the hill to pass.

I clamored down the staircase just like I was an old hand at this winery and descended into the barrel room area where I was met by Holly and Bunnie. Soon, Judd walked into the room. After all the usual pleasantries, we moved to the tasting room adjacent to the wine barrels to start our tastings and discussions.

I asked about the plans for this current site and what name for the new winery was going to be since it would not be standing on a hill; at least not a very high one. Judd and Holly answered simultaneously that they were retaining the Judd’s Hill name and would be using it at the new facilities. Just about that time Art Finkelstein came by in hurry to organize for his realtor who was bringing back a client interested in a second look of the property. With a quick hello and goodbye, he bounded off towards the parking area.

The first wine I tasted was the 2003 Pinot Noir. This wine is from the Milliken Vineyard located along the Silverado Trail just north of Trancas Street, Napa. Judd indicated that the winery surrounds the site of their new winery complex. The old stone bridge crossing Milliken Creek at the eastern end of Trancas (where it turns into Monticello Avenue) was added to the National Registry of Historical bridges in August of 2004. Constructed in 1908, this is the last five-span masonry arch bridge remaining in California. This creek was once used as the main contributor for Napa’s first water supply system.

Just as the winemaker’s tasting notes describe, the raspberry fruit flavor was prevalent. The wine was light on oak influence. Judd said that they use very little new French Oak and they added a hint of American Oak. The wine was truly soft on my tongue. A very enjoyable wine and made in manner that I like in my favorite red varietal. There were only 276 cases of this wine produced.

While we were tasting the wine, they got me talking about Hawaii and just as we were about to move on to taste the 2001 Petite Sirah, Holly asked Judd to retrieve his Ukulele and provide some background to our tasting event. Judd‘s face lit up and he raced away quickly returning with the Uke. While contemplating my sensory perceptions of this wine I was being serenaded by Judd playing the Uke while singing Don Ho’s classic, “Tiny Bubbles.” That brought back a lot memories of the 17 years I lived in Honolulu, and particularly my play days (and nights!) in Waikiki.

The wine derives from the vineyards of long time friends of the Finkelstein’s; the Cranston Brothers out of Acampo, California. Judd informed me that only 200 cases of this wine were produced. I’m fairly new to the Petite Sirah taster’s. I still have not yet fully appreciated the taste of this varietal and that’s probably because of its nature to display tannins. I had no negative reactions to the wine but it isn’t the style of wine I really enjoy. Let me add here, that’s not the problem of the grape, the winemaker or the wine but rather the result of my inexperience with this varietal.

Through out all of this tasting, Judd was talking to me explaining the wines while strumming away at the Uke and occasionally singing a little Hawaiian music. I asked where “The Maikai Gents Featuring The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa” would be appearing next. Saturday, June 11, they will perform at Vintners Collective in downtown Napa at Judd’s Hill’s own Release Party.

We moved on to the third wine to be tasted this day: the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a blend of Judd’s Hill estate vineyard grapes with others selected from around the valley. The tasting notes accompanying this wine list the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as selected from the vineyards of the Garvey Family (Flora Springs), Clark-Claudon and Van denBosch as well has Judd’s Hill. These grapes represents 74% of the blend. The balance of 16% is equally divided among Merlot and Cabernet Franc all coming from Juliana Vineyard. I liked the Finkelstein’ winemaking style. The fruit came forward distinctly through the Oak and tannin providing a very pleasant after-taste. I will be adding this wine to my lists of wines to enjoy in the future.

I asked about their other business venture, Napa Valley Custom MicroCrush (NVCMC) This brought on much excitement from both Judd and Holly. But, before moving into this subject, they were quick to point out to me that they were thrilled about being selected as the producer of the Sundance Merlot. Holly then explained that Sundance Resort in Utah has established a partnering program with distinctive winemakers to participate in the Sundance “Celebrating Wine as Art Program.” Congratulations to the Finkelstein’s and Judd’s Hill winery!

We then returned to discussions about the MicroCrush business. They started up this venture back in 1992 using their excess capacity to provided distinctive wines to private individuals as well as corporate clients under their own production labels. The Finkelstein’s provide a revolving door service to their clients assisting them in grape selection and purchase through crush, fermentation, aging, bottling, and labeling including meandering through all the federal, state and local governmental red tape associated to the production, labeling and sale of alcoholic beverages.

I had now overstayed my welcome and with many apologies for taking up so much of their time, I said my goodbyes for now and I let them get back to their work. Judd, Holly, Bunnie, Art, with all my Alooooohaaa , thanks for letting me visit your lives, facilities and wines. I truly enjoyed our time together and look forward to visiting you all in your new home in the fall.

Sidebar: Just in case you might be wondering, I have absolutely no business ties with Judd’s Hill winery or vineyards, the entertainment groups of the Finkelstein’s, or the custom MicroCrush business. I did not receive any kind of compensation for writing the three-part series on the Judd’s Hill operations. They provide me with the tasting session at no cost, however, I gifted them with four copies of my 1987 classic wine label poster-map featuring their former winery, Whitehall Lane.


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