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In February, I attended Premier Napa Valley at the Culinary Arts Institute of America in Oakville, Calif. February is the beginning of spring in Napa Valley. Daffodils and tulips are blooming and trees are budding. Amid all this growth, spring is the perfect time of year to showcase the best wine of Napa Valley.

During Premier Napa Valley, participating wineries host members of the trade at a series of events offering samples of wine produced specifically for the event. Each winery produces a special lot of wine, ranging in size from 5 to 20 cases.

The lots are auctioned exclusively to restaurateurs, retailers, and other members of the wine trade. This year’s top lot was 5 cases of 2014 cabernet sauvignon produced by Scarecrow winery which sold for $200,000.

Proceeds from the auction are used by the Napa Valley Vintners Association to promote and protect Napa County viticulture and winemaking. This event, however, is more than an opportunity to raise money; it is a chance for winemakers to showcase the unique terroir and first-class winemaking talent that represents Napa Valley.

For me, Premier Napa is a rare opportunity to network with winemakers, winery owners, distributors, and many others involved in the wine industry. Attending is also a chance to experience with all of my senses the finest wine of Napa Valley.

Learning what the best of Napa has to offer helps me discern and evaluate wine from all price levels available from this important wine region. Most of us don’t drink $300 bottles of wine everyday, yet we still enjoy good wine and understand what differentiates quality wine from wine that is ho-hum.

I taste a lot of wine from around the world as part of my job as a retail wine buyer for my family business in Rapid City. My style preferences do not always align with my customer base, but making informed decisions about wine for my customers involves much more than my own taste buds.

Two things I consider are quality and terroir, which refers to the combination of soil, climate and sunlight that give wines their distinctive flavors. Since the average amount spent on a bottle of wine is about $12 to $15, this is the price category I focus on.

Quality is a term that suggests character or level of class and does not always mean the same thing to everyone. Quality wine shows typicity, which means the wine tastes varietally correct. If the label lists the wine as cabernet sauvignon, the wine should have the characteristics of that variety.

Quality wine also exhibits a sense of place or terroir. Terroir includes the conditions unique to a specific grape growing region. California, specifically Napa Valley, is a moderate to hot growing region where Mother Nature is more predictable than Bordeaux, France, which is cooler with moderate to heavy rain.

Cabernet wine produced in these two very different growing regions is naturally as different as the terroir. Quality wine from any region represents the differences in climate and soil while maintaining the typicity of the grape.

Not all grapes grown or wine produced is created equal. The pastoral image of lush vineyards with juicy ripe grapes hanging from vines waiting to be plucked and mysteriously transformed into wine is not always the case.

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Wine that begins with lesser quality grapes often requires manipulation in the winery by the addition of various products such as sugar to make the wine more palatable. Grape juice concentrate is used to enhance color, flavor or texture, and oak extracts, enzymes, and acids are other possible additives.

Large production, mass produced, and extreme value wine is often manipulated to produce wine that is consistent in flavor and color. Wine in this category tastes the same from vintage to vintage, exhibits little typicity and lacks sense of place.

If this is disconcerting to you, look for winemakers that utilize sustainable winemaking practices in the vineyard. Although these practices take place in the vineyard and not in the winery, wine that starts out with grapes grown in a sustainable way is less likely to have added ingredients.

For this reason, I am partial to smaller production wineries. These wineries often use grapes grown sustainably and avoid additives in the winery. A leader in this style is Peterson Winery, where owners Fred and Jamie Peterson call their winemaking philosophy zero manipulation.

This is not to say large production wines or wines produced without sustainable practices cannot be quality. If you have a favorite wine and you want to learn about how it is produced visit the winery’s website.

Become a label reader and ask your local wine expert for advice. The best way to learn the differences between drinkable wine and memorable wine is to experiment with wine from different regions, a variety of winemakers, and at different price levels.

At the end of the day, the wine journey belongs to you.

Kathy Smith is a co-owner of Smith's Liquor Gallery and the Independent Ale House in Rapid City and is a certified executive sommelier.

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