Food & Wine

Weekend in Napa: Freemark Abbey Release Party, Bubbles, and Becoming a Cellarmaster

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Last year Jeanne & I just happened to be out in Napa the same weekend of the Freemark Abbey Sycamore release party and were introduced to the joy of getting unlimited pours of various library wines for free (since I was a wine club member)!

This year I planned to be there on purpose, and as Jeanne wasn’t free, took the friend who went wine-tasting with me in South America. Our flight was late getting in, there was a mixup with the rental car – I thought the board had said M9 instead of M19, and I wanted her to have her first In N Out burger (YUM), so we didn’t arrive until about 2:30.

They’ve definitely expanded their operations. The year before it had all been held in the tasting room and tiny outdoor deck. Now that tasting room is for VIPs only with another giant public tasting room in the adjacent building with a cellar underneath.
We checked in and were handed a glass of the current Sauvingon Blanc, which was more of a Sancerre style and tasted strongly of green bell pepper (one of my favorites). Once we’d sipped our Sauv blanc standing outside in the warm sun, we headed into the cellar to try the 2008 Sycamore Cab and listen to the live music.

Freemark Abbey Tasting Cellars
The setup was both really cool and cold, despite the heaters they had running. Fun nonetheless.

2008 Freemark Abbey Release Party

The first glass was the 2008, which was ok at first taste, then really opening up and becoming much smoother after just 5 minutes of swirling with notes of vanilla emerging. Next up was the 2007 which had numerous layers and lots of structure and was altogether lovely, although hard to pinpoint specific flavors. We also had a chance to try the delicious ’02 though not quite as good as the 2007 Sycamore Cabernet.

After munching on some of gourmet tapas, we headed up to the VIP room which was packed and waited several minutes for a space at the tasting bar to open up. Once there, we were a little overwhelmed by our options. It seemed like almost every recent wine was available for tasting.

We tried the 2005 and 2006 Sycamore Cabs, and preferred the 2005 by a hair, although the 2007 was still our favorite. We tried the 2008 Zinfindel which had a powerful nose and lovely fruity punch. And at that point our tastebuds were shot, so we gave the 2008 Mt. Zeeder Cab a shot, although we preferred the Sycamore Cab from the same year better, and then called it a day.

View from Freemark Abbey Deck

On the way to the Andaz Napa we stopped by Mumm, which I hadn’t visited in years, and I was glad we did. Although it was packed, we happened to get a table outside at the very front of the porch overlooking the vineyards. AND they were doing a “Life is full or roses” tasting which was perfect for my tannin-saturated mouth.

The tasting included:

  • Brut Rose – standard, tasty but generic and available in grocery stores
  • Brut Reserve Rose – a definite flavor of cranberries and more complex than the regular Brut
  • DVX 2007 Rose – lovely pomegranate notes and structure,  my favorite but not worth $70 a bottle

Mumm Napa Life is a Bed of Roses
Our server also stopped by with a pouring of the Brut Rose Magnum, which tasted far different than the 750ml Brut rose. The Magnum had far more flavor and a definite strawberry taste. It was one of my favorites, but I don’t know when I’m ever going to have a reason to have a Magnum!

It was at this point that I decided to rejoin the wine club, at least for a few months. They’d revamped the program to reduce the number of shipments and save their non-local members some serious shipping costs, and my friend agreed to share some of the cost in return for sampling it with me. When our server saw I was thinking seriously about it she stopped by to share the free glasses of Brut Rose Magnum with us. And when I rejoined, instead of the discount on the $20 tastings as I’d expected, they comped everything. For $95 I got $40 in tastings and 3 bottles of winery-only sparkling. Yep, wine clubs are definitely the elite status of the wine world.

The next day we planned to do tastings at GrGich Hills, but headed up the Silverado Trail early in the morning to enjoy the countryside.

Silverado trail

We went up to Calistoga and saw Chateau Montelena was one of the few wineries that opened at 9:30. It was only a little past that when we arrived, so we decided to give it a try. And I’m glad we did, because the beautiful scenery alone would have been worth it.

Chateau Montelena Lake

Chateau Montelena grounds

We were the first ones in the tasting room and were debating whether to share one of the $20 tastings or do our own. We tried the first wine – a dry, full flavored riesling, which was a steal at only $25 a bottle – and immediately agreed we should do our own.

The reisling was followed by the famous Chardonnay that won the Paris Judgment and was featured in Bottleshock. It’s a great wine, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the tart acidity and the notes of starfruit. Definitely not a $50 bottle to me.

Next up was the 2008 Napa Cabernet made from grapes purchased from various vineyards around Napa. It was nice – lots of fresh black cherry but a little raw on the tongue. It was at this point our pourer gave us the short spiel about the wine club options and the futures in particular – buy 6 or 12 bottles of the current Reserve Cab being bottled now at $85 a bottle and receive them 2 years later when they’re released for sale at $150+. We listened politely but that felt clearly out of our price range.

And then we tried the 2008 Reserve Cabernet. It had lots of velvety fruit, maybe raspberry?, and was far and away nicer than the Napa Cab. Not worth $150, but if I were splurging on a wine, definitely worth $85. Uh-oh.

I hmmed and hawed and she started outlining more of the benefits. The current $20 tastings would all be comped. So would any $50 small group library wine tastings. And we’d get discounts to the intimate Cellarmaster tastings with special cheese & food pairings. I did the math, and if I got $140 in tastings comped that day, then the wines would basically be $60 a bottle. Definitely worth it, especially if we split it (they’ll put two names on the membership) 😉

So I signed up, and then found out that the library wine tasting was completely filled for the day. Noooo! The lady probably picked up on our disappointment and did her best to make it up to us — giving us a tour of the tastings rooms and popping into the library wine room and giving us a generous pour of the 2005 which had been set out in advance. The 2005 really took the cake! It was silky and lived up to all that the 2008 had promised with some aging!

Chateau Montelena Tasting

And the experience of signing up was entertaining! They make a big deal about their “Cellarmasters” (folks who buy futures). I got my hand shook, was congratulated multiple times and generously made to feel very special for no reason. It wasn’t quite the bargain I’d hoped it would be, but if I can make it out to Napa at least once in the coming year and set up a library wine tasting in advance, it will definitely be worth it!

We finally left and headed south on Hwy 29 to GrGich Hills Estate. We arrived around 11 and I was glad to see it wasn’t quite the madhouse I’d seen it become by midday. I was disappointed though to find out upon arrival they didn’t have enough staff to man the wine club tastings in the back room. 🙁

I’d called the day before and on Saturday they had a bunch of library wines open for tasting, etc, but apparently Sunday wasn’t quite as exciting. That said, our host did his best to make us feel special and give us a great experience.

The tasting menu allows you to pick 6, although they tend not to bother with that for wine club members. I wanted my friend to try as many wines as possible, so we each chose different wines to taste as many as possible without taking more than a few sips of any.

We started off with a comparison of the Chardonnays – their regular 2010 versus the more expensive 2009 Carneros. Both were outstanding and very different! The 2010 was full bodied with apricot fruit, not oaky all and not oppresively fruity; the 2009 Carneros had more mineral/stone notes with pear as the dominant fruit. If price were no object I’d probably pick the Carneros 4 out of 5 times, but will be quite happy to drink the far less expensive 2010.

Next was the 2008 & 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandels – 08 was extremely strawberry and bright; 2009 was more complex, more tannic, less defined flavors. The 2007 & 2008 Merlots were powerful and unusual for their varietals. The ’07 is easier to drink, but I think after a year of aging the 2008, which had lovely strawberry notes, will far surpass it.

We then compared the 2006 & 2008 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon –- the 2006 was smoother but 2008 had more promise. The highlight was getting to try the 2008 Yountville Cabernet. It was delicious! Featuring the cherry flavors I grew to love in Argentina. It was hard to pick a favorite between it and the Chateau Montelena. Unfortunately both were at the $140-$150 price point. (This is why tastings are good vs having to buy your own bottles).

We finished up with Jeanne’s favorite dessert wine, the Violetta, well paired with a green tea chocolate.


We were an hour ahead of schedule so we also stopped at the Foley Johnson Winery on our way out of town. We knew nothing about it, but liked the simplicity of the logo. It had recently been purchased from Sawyer Cellars, and it seemed like the employees weren’t quite thrilled with the new management. The wines were perfectly nice, but unremarkable and not worth the price point.

foley johnson winery


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Heels First is the travels and tribulations of two twenty-something frequent fliers jumping into the world of travel. Join Keri and Jeanne as they tackle mileage runs, elite status, and of course–the perfect travel accessories.

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