Lunch with the winemakers 

Just as you’ve suspected all along, there are some perks to this gig, and one of them is having lunch with the occasional winemaker. First, you are tasting wines with food, and second, you get to pose all kinds of potentially embarrassing questions. (Turns out that asking a winemaker if he would ever contemplate using oak chips is the equivalent to asking for a wife-beating confession.) Most recently I had the pleasure of lunch at Boudro’s with the ample and amicable Jeff Hanson of Napa’s Amici Cellars.

Amici was founded by Hanson and friends in ’92, and it remains a “handcrafted and highly allocated wine” to this day. (This means mostly beyond our price point, but if you try to find them at a Saturday sale at Saglimbeni’s or Beeman’s — or if you spring for a wine discount card at Gabriel’s on Callaghan & I-10 — you might get lucky.) Their passion is “to produce spectacular reds,” but a melon-scented Napa Sauvignon Blanc has slipped into the lineup, and an extremely appealing ’05 Napa Rosato of cabernet, sporting an intense salmon color, makes use of whatever red they’ve got the most of. Hanson calls this a “low-anxiety” wine, perfect for grabbing from the fridge after a long day’s work.

A little more anxiety attends his zinfandel, the spicy-jammy ’03 Napa Panek Vineyard is the last vintage for a while due to Pierce’s disease (in the vines, not Hanson). But the heavily extracted ’03 Pinot Noir Mendocino makes up for much with its fantastic fruit and herbal accents. The ’02 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, from vineyards in Rutherford and St. Helena, offered restrained black-currant fruit and modulated tannins, making it a pleasure to drink with Boudro’s lacquered duck — not bad work for a guy who doesn’t yet have his own winery and does all this at a custom-crush facility.

Another perk is to perceive how winemakers of completely different personality and provenance can produce equally spectacular wines. Steven Smith, winemaker at New Zealand’s Craggy Range Winery, is also a Master of Wine — no small achievement in its own right. This doesn’t mean he’s a stuffy s.o.b., far from it. But his operation is both newer and more extensive than Amici’s. (Check it out at; the vineyard photos are stunning.)

At the Lodge, we tasted his Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, and, with both lime and white peach components, it went way beyond the usual grapefruit breakfast drink we often associate with New Zealand. I was less impressed with the limited-production Riesling, but, especially in the company of Jason Dady’s quail, was both surprised and delighted with the reds. Smith’s Gimblett Gravels Vineyard is said to be the warmest in the country, and it shows in deep fruit and spicy, plush texture of the Te Kahu Bordeaux blend, the Sophia (mostly Merlot), and the especially exciting Le Sol Syrah. This latter wine is about $60 a bottle, but makes most Aussie Shirazes seem clumsy in comparison. Try it with lamb, the other Kiwi export.



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.