“Great wine is great art, my friend. I am, in effect, a shepherd… whose mission is to offer the public another form of great art and to guide its appreciation thereof.”
– Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, Bottle Shock
I had a different idea on how I was going to begin this article, but the death of Alan Rickman really gutted me. Maybe it was the Potterhead in me, my newfound love of all things Austen (he had the most forlorn looking portrayal of Colonel Brandon that made me want to reach into the screen and give him a big fat hug), or more importantly, my disgust for anything relating to wine snobbery.
Let me explain the last bit.
One of my favorite wine films of all time is Bottle Shock (2008). The film was based on the 1976 Judgment of Paris, where Napa’s Chateau Montelena triumphed over several French powerhouses in the Chardonnay blind tasting category.
My favorite part of the film was Rickman’s portrayal of the British wine expert Steven Spurrier (the real Spurrier has stated that the film is an exaggerated take on himself and the events). The screen version of Spurrier was a wine snob whose predilection for French wines changed after the events of 1976. I have strongly held the lessons I’ve learned through this character in the course of my wine career: Never be a wine snob, and always be open to all forms of winemaking (it’s best way to learn about people and their wine, and potentially discover gems along the way).
Incidentally (and speaking of wine snobs), right before our trip to Napa, some of my wino friends have warned me that along with the multiple accolades that Napa winemakers have achieved over the years, there has been a rise of Napa wine snobs.
So, obviously, I had some apprehensions during the beautifully scenic and deliciously foggy car ride from San Francisco to Napa (placated only by our niece and I singing along to Adele in the car).
Would they be open to a nosy Filipina eager to learn about their winemaking? Is their patience enough to be able to tolerate my tendency to be like a child in a candy store when I’m in a vineyard?
Our first stop was Cakebread Cellars (Rutherford), which is renowned for their impeccable Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir (with an inexplicable yet fitting pastry-tasting finish).
Highlights of the cellar tour included:
- Learning about the concept of Musqué attached to the name of another grape (in this case, the Sauvignon, making the proper name of the grape Sauvignon Musqué). It is a French term used for highly aromatic clones of grapes (in our particular example, a Sauvignon Musqué is a clone of a Sauvignon Blanc) used for making wine.
- They have a top of the line Cabernet Sauvignon label called Dancing Bear Ranch (I admittedly loved the name).
- I learned how to top up a barrel from a young guy working in their cellar, listening to Green Day.
- I’ve seen my first frozen steel vat. The purpose of this is to get rid of the potassium bitartrate crystals that can potentially form in the bottom of the wine bottle. It’s not harmful, but some people find the crystals strange. Freezing the steel tanks allow the potassium bitartrate crystals to precipitate, and can be removed later on through filtration…
Sounds complicated, but basically winemakers freeze the steel tank to get rid of any potential crystal-like substances in a consumer’s wine bottle (I promise this is about as complicated as I can get in this article).
After a hearty lunch in Yountville, we proceeded to the legendary Silver Oak Cellars. I was ecstatic and thrilled beyond words (and I may have annoyed our BFAM for thanking him over and over again).
When I was taking my WSET certification, Silver Oak was mentioned during the discussion of Napa Valley wines. It represents the best of California red wine making: big, mighty, robust, and elegantly grounded Cabernet Sauvignons that are meant to be paired with equally powerful food, or just to be savored… I swear I could drown in the rich aromas left in the glass.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me give you some tidbits on Silver Oak:
- Flood and Fire. Sounds apocalyptic, but it’s worth mentioning, as the vineyard has faced both tragedies (while waiting for the plague of locusts to follow, I do believe). In a feat of unbelievable resilience and strength, however, the wine house is standing just as strong as ever before.
- Silver Oak has made a mark by specializing on (and channeling all their resources on making) one divinely beautiful thing: some of the most superb, earth shattering Cabernet Sauvignon on earth. They do have fabulous Pinot Noir in another label, Twomey, but that is a story for another time.
- Interestingly, Silver Oak prefers to use American oak (from Missouri) for their wines. It adds interesting, slightly more feminine characteristics (such as sweet vanilla and coconuts) to the wine. Their exacting standards in using these barrels have led them to solely own The Oak Cooperage (formerly A&K). To have been able to breathe in the rich aromas of the barrels in their barrel room was absolutely breathtaking (pardon the pun).
- Silver Oak makes two Cabernet Sauvignons; a Napa version and an Alexander Valley. Alexander Valley is renowned for making soft-textured, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes of their gorgeous Napa wines come from their vineyards in Soda Canyon and Atlas Peak, and the outcome is a beautifully subtle, delightfully coy Cabernet Sauvignon.
- I had my first, up close look at some wonderfully gnarled replacement-cane pruned vines (stuff I only saw in a drawing from my WSET book). This allows highly dense vines to be as well aerated and shade-free as possible.
After a tour in their wine library (housing all the house’s vintages dating back to 1972!), we couldn’t resist taking home a bottle of the 2011 Napa and 2008 Alexander Valley, which Chad and I are saving for a special occasion.
Going back to the film (which I watched again right before I got to rewriting the introduction to today’s entry), I have to say that Rickman has left such an indelible mark in my life with his brilliant performances. The Internet is ablaze with tributes of his portrayal of Professor Snape, and admittedly, I feel like one of my childhood heroes has died.
To me, however, he is Steven Spurrier, the anti-hero to all winos.