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Tasting with the Rocca Family

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One way winery owners get good press is to invite writers to join them for lavish meals at chic restaurants, and then pour, pour, pour their newest, oldest, and best bottles.

It's hard to stay objective as the candles glow, and the wines and good food have their effect, and we wine writers struggle to keep our asbestos firewalls intact to protect our editorial integrity.

That's my full disclosure for this posting, because I'm writing about tasting wines from Rocca Family Vineyards, with owners Mary Rocca and Eric Grigsby, and their winemaker Paul Colantuoni at Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco.

rocca bottles
The task before us.

The winery makes top quality, near cult-status Cabernet Sauvignon from grapes grown in Yountville-- just south of the Yountville Mounts, and from Coombsville on the hilly east side of Napa. The wines have taken first place and a silver medal in some major tastings under the direction of outgoing winemaker Celia Masyczek.


We arrived for chitchat in a private room, and tasted the winery's entry level wine, the 2006 Bad Boy Red, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot ($33).

It seemed a big, unruly mouthful of wine, hot (too alcoholic), full of raspberries-- and maybe some blueberry-- in the mouth. I found it to be a good example of recent California trends I'm not fond of: the worship of power, alcohol and fruit at the cost of nuance.

At the table we tried the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is now almost impossible to find. It also seemed hot in the nose, but it was supple and luscious in the mouth, tasting of licorice, tar, and black currant. The wine really came to life with the first course, an orgy of truffle dishes: truffled corn muffin, truffled vichysoisse, and truffled scrambled eggs. It was like plunging your face into the leafy, wet crotch of an oak tree-- in a good way.

Syrah and Cabernet
Rocca Syrah and Cabernet

We followed that with the 2005 Syrah ($45), still a bit hot, but with nice mouthfuls of bacon, boysenberry, leather, lavender, and cocoa. (For more details see Alan Goldfarb's story on cool climate Syrahs at Appellation America. The San Francisco Chronicle also posted a positive review.)

I was still waiting for my “Wow!” moment, which came when we tried the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($74), a knockout that blended chocolate, licorice, new oak, cedar, and tobacco. Mmmm. More please.

As we tasted the wines, we were moving through food courses. Fleur de Lys is a more-is-more kind of place. Our meal was very good, but primped to the point where each dish required a short speech from one of the servers to explain it. I refer you back to that truffle plate. And then there was a plate of beef tartare, chestnut mousse, and a fabulous choucroute gelée. (That last is basically a sauerkraut jelly; odd but delicious, and great with the wines.

winter symphony
Symphony of winter flavors

Still the food, with all its manipulation, seemed an odd match with the personalities of the wines and their makers. It seemed frou-frou, they seemed very down-to-earth. Mary Rocca went to Tomales High School and loves to garden. She was a dentist in Rochester, Minnesota, before she returned to the North Bay, and found a vineyard she could afford. She also owns the Palace Market in Point Reyes Station-- stocking grocery store shelves with canned goods will keep anyone grounded in the real world.

eric grigsby
Eric Grigsby

Her husband Eric Grigsby is a good old boy from a blue- collar family in Knoxville. He's the sexy dude in the cowboy hat on the label for the Bad Boy Red, and he's also an M.D. specializing in pain management. He and Rocca have set up the Grigsby Foundation to provide palliative care to people with AIDS in Mali, Africa.

So where the food was fussy, they seemed true to their terroir. And now Rocca and Grigsby are taking a big gamble, putting their faith in their new winemaker, Paul Colantuoni, a sweet-faced, bespectacled, young man with an italo-fro, who is taking from the esteemed Masyczek.

mary rocca and paul colantuoni
Mary Rocca and Paul Colantuoni

Colantuoni's a Princeton graduate who studied chemical engineering. He worked as a tour guide at Robert Mondavi (more prestigious than you would think), and apprenticed in Tuscany and at Domaine de Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France's southern Rhône Valley, before working under Masyczek in Napa. She recommended him to Rocca.

Colantuoni says all the right things. He quotes Masyczek-- herself quoting dozens of great winemakers--saying, "90% of the winemaking is in the vineyard." He told me the wines aren't sulfured at crush, because they ferment with native yeasts, a tricky business designed to preserve character and terroir.

The proof seemed to be there in the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon's barrel samples we tasted with dessert; one from Coombsville, another from Yountville. Colantuoni is managing the blending and aging of these wines, and they seem well structured for long aging, loaded with black currants, and as distinct in their character as the people making them.

A few more notes. The Rocca tasting left me thirsty for white wines, and I want to suggest one recent favorite, the 2006 Patianna Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc. This is great, biodynamic Sauvignon Blanc, smelling of fresh mown hay and melon with crisp lemon-lime acid in the mouth. The 2005 was $9.99 at the Portrero Safeway the other day. The 2006 ($15) is just as good.

I also wanted to leave you with another Syrah recommendation for the cold nights ahead this winter. The Meyer Family 2004 Syrah ($35) from the Yorkville Bench of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino is loaded with bacon, wrapped around cherries, dipped in chocolate. I love this wine. Meyer Family Cellars also makes a killer Zinfandel Port.

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