W hile the country has been in coronavirus lock-down mode, wine drinkers have been trying to find a replacement for the fun wine tastings we love to attend. Most of us are a social lot and miss the camaraderie of tastings.
Many wineries have turned to virtual tastings, allowing us to taste the wine in the safety of our homes, sharing the experience with people around the country.
Frank Family Vineyards has offered several fun tastings this summer, and they are among the best at doing this.
This week five members of the Frank Family tasting room staff led the tasting of four wines from their portfolio. You can join their tastings without buying the wine, but it is much more fun if you order the wine in advance and taste the wines as they are described. You also can view recordings of past tastings on their website.
Their next virtual tasting is August 22, called Pinot and Paella.
Liam Gearity, director of hospitality, served as moderator for this tasting and introduced us to other employees who talked about the wines.
First up was Wine Club Manager Brian Catlett, who was enthusiastic about the 2016 Riley Red Blend, a Bordeaux style blend. The wine is 64 percent Merlot, 28 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 8 percent Cabernet Franc. I think the blend changes slightly each year, depending on the harvest.
“Merlot means little black bird in French,” said Catlett. “It is a great grape that got a bad rap because it was being planted everywhere, in places where it shouldn’t be.”
This was a beautiful wine, rich and smooth with ripe dark fruit flavors. I had made a beer can chicken on the grill that night, so I saved some chicken to taste with the wines. It was a great pairing. (Actually, what I make is a wine can chicken because I fill the can inside the bird with white wine and several herbs and spices.)
Catlett said the blend goes with all kinds of food: pork, chicken, beef. He called it an all-purpose wine.
The wine was named after one of the winery’s favorite dogs, Riley, a German shepherd who died a few years ago. He was friendly and always around to greet guests.
Catlett also showed us how to use the Ah-So, a wine tool that removes the cork from a bottle without breaking up the cork. It is especially useful when you want to open an old bottle that might have a delicate cork.
I’ve been using one for years, and it is easy to use and very effective. You can find them at any wine shop.
Catlett also made a pitch for the Frank Family Wine Club. “The Wine Club is a great way to get wines to your door at a savings,” he said. “You get some of the wines pre-release, even before they are in the tasting room. Some of those wines never make it to the tasting room.”
Frank Family has several different clubs, tailored to your tastes.
Next up was new team member Olivia Ludke, a wine educator in the tasting room, who told us about the 2017 Lewis Vineyard Pinot Noir.
This was another silky smooth, gorgeous wine with beautiful balance. It had juicy flavors of cherry, red fruit and spices, with an herbal tone. The vineyard is in the Carneros region, the farthest southern part of Napa and Sonoma.
“Carneros has fog coverage, which keeps the temperatures down,” said Ludke. That helps the grapes ripen fully and slowly.
“It’s a thin-skinned grape so you get tension and grip,” she added. This also was a great wine with my chicken.
Wine lovers often compare California and French Pinot Noir (grown in the Burgundy region), but they are different expressions of the grape.
“Burgundy pinot features more dark fruit, and is great for aging,” said Ludke.
One of the things that makes Pinot Noir so interesting is there are hundreds of varieties of the grape.
“The Pinot grape is 1,000 years old,” she said. “We have gorgeous clonal varieties, such as the Dijon clone and heritage clones. We have incredible variety.”
That makes the wine more complex if you blend clones and allows winemakers and growers to pick the right clones for the right growing regions.
Ludke, who grew up in Wisconsin, said this is a great wine for big dinners.
“It is perfect for family dinners and holiday dinners,” she said. “It matches many foods. We used to have it with venison, game, duck, all kinds of things. It’s a palate pleaser.”
She said the best temperature to serve Pinot Noir is 55 degrees. As it warms up you get different layers of flavor in your glass.
“I call Pinot Noir a hug in a glass because it is so approachable,” said Ludke.
Wine educator Mike Frietas was next with the 2017 Chiles Valley Zinfandel. This was a rich, warm wine, full of ripe fruit flavors. I tasted plum, blackberry and vanilla with some black pepper.
“This wine talks about family,” said Frietas. “It talks about friends. Zin is the wine that speaks to me when I’m grilling.
“This is a grape with a lot of history. It was the grape of Prohibition in Napa Valley.”
Gearity added that the best wines happen when the right grapes are planted in the right place. The Chiles Valley Zinfandel comes from mountainside vineyards that add some power to the wine. It has lots of ripe fruit, but it is balanced by crisp acidity.
Frietas said the wine is 10 percent Petite Sirah and spends 16 months in half new, half used oak barrels. He also talked about how much people like working at Frank Family Vineyards.
“It’s corny, but it really is a family here,” he said.
The last wine was the 2017 RHF Cabernet Sauvignon, named for winery owner Rich Frank, or Richard Harvey Frank.
“It’s an incredible wine from their original vineyard, Winston Hill, plus the Benjamin Vineyard on the valley floor,” said wine educator John Ruch. The second vintage of this wine is 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 percent Petit Verdot and 1percent Merlot. The estate vineyards are in the heart of the Rutherford appellation.
This bold, complex wine had blackberry and black current flavors with some toasted oak, cinnamon and cocoa powder. It finishes with a touch of vanilla and dark chocolate. Even with the Cabernet muscle, this wine is soft on the palate.
Ruch had decanted the wine before the tasting, and Gearity asked why you decant and when.
“This is a young wine and has been in the bottle a little more than a year. It needs air to open up,” said Ruch. “Older wines you are going to decant for a different reason. It’s been on its side in the cellar so you set it upright for a day to get the sediment to settle. Then decant it slowly to keep the sediment out.”
I usually decant the red wines we drink at home to give them a little more air.
Ruch said he would pair this wine with a New York Strip, dark chocolate or a hard cheese. It was also great with my chicken.
Ruch said Frank Family makes such good Cabs because besides the grapes grown on their estate vineyards, winemaker Todd Graff has great relationships with growers all over Napa Valley. The fall wine club shipment from Frank Family will highlight the differences in wine grown in different areas of Napa.
The shipment will include the first vintage of their new Oakville Cab. Oakville is south of Rutherford so it is a little cooler and the grapes develop differently. They also will include a Calistoga Cab. Ruch recommended sitting down with friends to try these different cabs and comparing them.
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Author Dennis Sodomka