A visit to Wine Heaven

By Celia Strong

There’s nothing like tasting a wine with the guy who made it! Every once in a while, and I’m talking in the world of wine here, you get to taste a wine with its winemaker. And, there’s absolutely nothing like it! Unless, the exact surroundings when you’re tasting it are perfect. Then it’s like you died and went to “Wine Heaven.” A small, fortunate group of us were lucky enough to experience this last week. Wine Heaven, right here in Beaufort. Wow!

I’ve got a lot to tell you about this day, so we’re going to get right to it. To begin, a group of tasters was invited to get together on Cinco de Mayo. And, because of the date, Mexican food was chosen. Not chain restaurant food. Homemade, from scratch, from recipes that came from Mexico. Real Mexican food. So every mouthful was all fresh ingredients, fresh herbs, and true flavors. Flavors, not hot spices and jalapeños. Salsa, carnitas, albondigas, quesadillas. And, yes, all went really well with the wines. Napa wines. And that leads us to Wine Heaven!

Our Cinco de Mayo tasting included a couple of imported wines. And, they were excellent! But – they were not made by our guest. Our guest is the winemaker of the last four wines we tasted. Robert Mondavi, Jr. So, yes, you can imagine how special our evening had to be. Rob and his family have a home in Beaufort and he spends about one quarter of the year hear. Coming from a family whose name is one of the best known in the world of wine, he grew up seeing and experiencing and learning all the pieces and parts of that business. He worked in vineyards, in wineries, in tasting rooms, with wholesale distributors and importers. All of it just being a part of life with his family. Currently, his father, Michael, his sister, Dina, and he have a company called Folio. (Just so you have the right info – Michael is the original Robert Mondavi’s son, son Rob and Dina are the grandchildren.) And, Folio is the company who brings us our wines today.

First, the Emblem Carneros Chardonnay. I know it’s only May, but, having done this for a few years myself, I suspect this will be the best new Chardonnay I taste this year. And, I only say I suspect because there are over six months more of new wines still coming. I’m pretty sure, though, Emblem is it. This wine is golden colored, with intense aromas just popping out of your glass. Baked apples and pears, baking spices included. It has a lush mouth-feel and a long, lingering finish with some acidity and minerality. For me, in particular, I tasted what I always describe as buttercups. Those little yellow field flowers we used to hold under our chins as kids to see if we liked butter. This flavor I only get from really good French Meursault wines. Spectacular. And the reason I’m saying this is my best new Chardonnay of the year. For $35.99 this is a bargain. The really good Meursault wines are way more.

Our second wine is the Emblem Napa Cabernet. There are little bits of Syrah, Petit Sirah, Zinfandel and Petite Verdot blended into this Cabernet. It is made to be approachable with a rounded mouthfeel and layers of flavors. There are cherry, dark berries and cassis flavors, mixed with vanilla and toffee. Between the flavors and the textures, this wine as a huge favorite. At $31.99, a true value from Napa. Both the Emblem wines are made by Rob and his sister.

Next, we tasted the Animo Napa Cabernet. Animo means “soul,” a name that came from Rob’s sister, Dina. It refers to the soul of the wine, its history, its family and the lifestyle that goes with all of that. Definitely this is a step up the ladder in Napa Cabernets. The grapes for this wine come from hillside vineyards, hard to work physically but great for grape growing. These grapes are hand- picked, numerous passes through every row so each grape is properly ripened, macerated for a very lengthy month, fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak for almost two years. Animo Cabernet can be cellared for several years, but can also be drunk now. This wine is a family project – Michael with Rob and Dina. A chance for them to really work together. For $85.99.

Our last wine was M by Michael Mondavi Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. These grapes come from the peaks of the hills where Animo grapes grow. More austere conditions – cooler temperatures and soils and its nutrients going downhill with every rainfall onto Animo grapes. This wine is more Michael’s style. He grew up in the wine business when French Bordeaux wines were the kings. Subtle wines with more restrained styles that took years of cellaring to become what they were meant to be. Michael makes all the decisions for this wine, but Rob is the winemaker. For $179.99, this is a uniquely flavorful and complex wine I think of it at a “prestige” level, like in the highest tier of Champagne. (We don’t always get to drink wines like some of these, but having tasted them we now know we can get them.)

As you can see, wine-wise, it was a great evening. Wine Heaven. And there is nothing like tasting wines with the guy who made them. But Rob made another point and, I think, all of us there came away with the same feeling. Good wine and good food and family and friends are meant to be shared. This is a lifestyle. Rob is lucky enough to have a family that is wine-centered. He takes his young son to walk among the vines just like his father and grandfather did with him. So the traditions and special feelings for what they do continue. At Folio, the family company extends their relationships. Brother and sister work together on the Emblem label. Father with son and daughter work on Animo Cabernet. And father has his dream wine, M, with his son making it. Wine Heaven, though, was more than just the wines. A whole day of cooking special food was a gift from our hostess. A home and food shared with friends made it happen. And the wines, of course. Completely a very special evening. (I had another sip of the Emblem Chardonnay before I left just to be sure my memory banks stay strong.) Enjoy.

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