A Napa Valley Wine Tasting

In Good Taste


If I close my eyes, I can recall, vividly, seeing Napa Valley for the first time. It is a ‘mouth agape’ kind of beautiful as you round that curve onto Highway 29, suddenly surrounded by crests and valleys of regal vines. Every moment on that trip felt immersive and new, intensified by the astonishment that such an otherworldly place existed such a short flight away. It has been a progressive education ever since. At its heart, Napa is where you fully experience wine; where you meet makers and visit caves and sip from barrels to get to know the story a little better. Wine, like Napa Valley, is meant to be a lifelong love affair, celebrated easily and often.


The Blueprint

When we returned from our last tasting tour of Napa Valley, we were more excited than ever about the pairings we’d experienced and the wines we’d discovered, and couldn’t wait to share them with our friends. We settled on six Napa Valley varietals from light to dark (sparkling, white, rosé, pinot noir, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon) and hosted a wine tasting party complete with complementary bites that brought out the wines’ unique characteristics. We again tapped our friend Karen Williams of St. Helena’s ACME Fine Wines for her expertise on hosting a proper wine tasting:

“When planning a wine tasting get-together with friends, it can be both a learning experience and a way to find a new varietal or style of interest in a whimsical fashion. Be sure to taste from lightest to heaviest as a simple rule of thumb. Give each guest a paper and pencil for notes to discuss comments and favorites afterwards.  Go around the room and have your friends give their thoughts about each wine – this is a good way to see if your taste follows the masses or if you march to the beat of your own drum! Neither is right or wrong, it’s all about learning and enjoyment.”

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The Food

Pairing Up

The idea of enhancing wines with intermezzo-style morsels was borrowed from Robert Sinskey Vineyards, whose innovative food and wine pairings are deliciously good fun. Smoked salmon tartlets with dill make a sparkling wine shine, honey + thyme goat cheese burnished our favorite sauvignon blanc, white bean hummus bruschetta proved tasty with rosé, stone fruit and serrano ham paired well with pinot noir, chili + dark chocolates brought out another side of cabernet franc, and gorgonzola tri-tip was cabernet sauvignon’s perfect mate. Gather Tip: offer plain crackers or nuts to cleanse the palate between pairings.

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Smoked Salmon Tartlets with Dill

  • Mini all-butter pastry shells (18-20)
  • Smoked salmon (6 oz.)
  • Crème fraîche (4 oz.)
  • Fresh dill (1 bunch)

Begin by arranging pastry shells on a platter. Slice the smoked salmon into narrow strips, about 1 x 2 inch pieces and set aside. Spoon the crème fraîche into a piping bag fitted with a large round tip. If you do not have a piping bag, you can use a plastic sandwich bag instead (fill the bag with crème fraîche, squeezing it gently into one corner. Snip that corner with scissors and use it to pipe into the shells). Pipe a small amount of crème fraîche into each shell (about the size of a large marble). Take a piece of salmon and roll it into a spiral, a bit like a tiny rose. Place the salmon on top of the crème fraîche. Repeat until all shells have been filled. The last step is the dill garnish. Note: mini pastry shells can be found at specialty food stores or you can use puff pastry. Serves 14-16.

Serrano-Wrapped Pluots with Dried Cherry

  • Serrano ham (4 oz.)
  • 2 pluots (or other firm stone fruit, like plums or nectarines)
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • Toothpicks

Prepare the Serrano ham by stacking slices two at a time and slicing the short way (you want strips that are about 1 inch wide). Slice the pluots by placing each stem side down and cutting as close to the pit as possible to remove as much flesh you can,  yielding four large pieces. Slice the large pieces into fourths and then slice those into halves. You should have several pieces that are about 1×1 inch. Place a piece of pluot in the middle of a slice of ham.  Wrap ham around the pluot tightly and then place a single died cherry on top of the roll. Secure by sticking a toothpick all the way through the roll. Repeat until you have used all the pieces. Note: Serrano ham can be substituted with prosciutto or speck. Serves 18-20.

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The Wine Tasting

6 Shades of Napa Valley

The wines highlighted here represent some of our favorite winemakers. See the tasting notes and traits for these faithful Napa Valley values, and have your guests taste from light to dark, first trying the wine on its own and then sampling the bouquet with its accompanying bite. We printed up little menus with room for guests to make note of their favorites, but pen and paper will do the trick just as well. Enlist a dedicated bartender or wine pourer to help guests keep track of their progress – handy wine pourers will ensure you have enough bottles on-hand for each guest to sample their share. A bucket or pitcher works as a receptacle for discarded wine, and carafes full of water nudge your peeps to pace themselves.

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The Sparkling: Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, $32.99

FROM THE MAKER, HUGH DAVIES: “The Schramsberg style of Blanc de Blancs is dry and crisp. With its vibrant nature, this sparkling wine will maintain its freshness, structure and refined finish for many years, even decades following its initial release. While this wine can be enjoyed by itself as an apéritif, it is also perfect with fresh oysters and other fish, crab cakes, ceviche and grilled sea bass.”

The White: Massican Sauvignon Blanc, $29.99

FROM THE MAKER, OUR FRIEND DAN PETROSKI: “The Sauvignon is an interesting wine. It sits outside of Napa with its aroma and flavor profile. It doesn’t have the ripe honeydew or passion fruit (typical of sauvignon blanc); the aromas and flavors are floral, dried herb, stone fruit, wet rocks. But what is most alluring is the wine’s intensity. From fairly old vines planted in 1992, the grapes are from one of the warmest climates in Napa. The vines can withstand a tremendous amount of heat without losing their freshness. I originally wanted Sauvignon in the portfolio to blend with the other varieties in Annia, however the wine’s intensity is so dominating that even at 5 or 10%, the wine became a Sauvignon Blanc-based wine which was disappointing to me. I literally almost didn’t bottle it! Thankfully I did as the wine has come to find not only a special place in the portfolio of Massican, but also has found a tremendous amount of fans and followers who appreciate this atypical version of a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.”

The Rosé: Robert Sinskey Vineyards Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, $28

FROM THE MAKER, JEFF VIRNIG: “The Vin Gris of Pinot Noir has a luminosity that cannot be pinned down with one or two descriptors. It’s vibrant and luscious with aromatics and flavors of wild strawberry and peach skin. The wine is a perfect foil for all types of food both serious and frivolous. Take on a picnic or present at the table. This wine is delicious.”

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The Light Red: Renteria Los Carneros Pinot Noir, $40

FROM THE MAKER, KAREN CULLER: “The Renteria Pinot Noir is influenced by the warmer weather from the Carneros Napa location. The aromas tend toward the cherry and darker fruits like plum, with some vanilla and clove qualities.  While the wine may be light in color, the flavors of ripe bing cherry shine through.  This wine is a textbook Carneros Pinot Noir with its hint of earthiness.  The wine was aged 11 months in barrels prior to bottling on August 15, 2013, and has the ability to age for 8-10 years.” 

The Medium Red: Paradigm Cabernet Franc Oakville, $62

FROM THE MAKER, HEIDI PETERSON BARRETT: “This Cabernet Franc is black cherry red in color with aromas of blueberry jam and white pepper spiciness. With wonderful ripeness in 2012, we were able to make one of our best Cabernet Francs to date. The wine is very lush across the palate with a silky softness and sweet impression of ripe blueberry fruit. Tannins are very moderate with a nice light texture in the mid-palate. This is an easy drinking Cabernet Franc, rich, complete and very enjoyable.”

The Full-Bodied Red: TOR Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, $150

FROM THE MAKER, OUR FRIEND JEFF AMES: “What more can be said about To Kalon that has not already been said? The To Kalon vineyard in Oakville is in one of the (if not THE) premier spots in the Napa Valley. It has a well-earned reputation for making wines that are powerful but somehow retain finesse. In short, wines like the 2012 To Kalon Cabernet. This is the best To Kalon Cabernet since 2006, in my opinion. It shows the loamy, earthy side of west Oakville allied with sweet, rich black and red fruit, as well as licorice and burning embers. This has an absolutely uncanny ability to have intense richness but still be light and flowing on the palate. I don’t think that there will be a ‘bad’ time to drink this vintage. It is showing wonderfully now and should continue to do so for the next 10 years, at least.”

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The Setting

Collector’s Retreat Meets Cellar Comfort


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One Decor Detail…

It’s all about the wine! Let the guest of honor take center stage throughout your setting by allowing wine and wine-inspired touches create a casual sophistication. Unscented lilies in a merlot hue gave the rustic table a splash of color. We loved having vessels filled with corks act as centerpieces, while clusters of candlelight gave the cellar setting and displayed bottles a soft glow. 

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Shop Our Tasting Must-Haves…

The Tunes

“A Little Water But Mostly Wine”

California Rain, Madeleine Peyroux · Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, Billy Joel
A String of Pearls, Glenn Miller · Red Red Wine, Neil Diamond
Busman’s Holiday, Allah-Las · Elderberry Wine, Billy Joel
Days Of Wine And Roses, Frank Sinatra · Going To California, Led Zeppelin
Besame Mucho, Dave Brubeck · Cherry Wine, Amy Winehouse & Nas
These Are The Days, Van Morrison & Natalie Cole · Barfly, Ray LaMontagne
Tiny Bubbles, Don Ho · Bottle Of Red Wine, Eric Clapton
Peel Me A Grape, Diana Krall · High And Dry, Jamie Callum

Looking for more Napa Valley stories? See the full Gather collection.

© Gatherings: A Napa Valley-inspired Wine Tasting.