Napa Trip Report: Conn Valley, Larkmead, Mayacamas, Alpha Omega (long)

First, thanks to all the people who gave us suggestions about places to go, both when I asked and in older threads. That information proved invaluable. Thank you also to the wonderful people we met everywhere we went. Everyone treated us warmly, and I would recommend all of these wineries to others.

I didn’t take any notes, so mostly these will be more like recollected impressions than formal tasting notes. A few of the vintages I also am not sure on, as I forgot to keep some of the pamphlets we were given, and since we were drinking a decent amount of wine, things may have got mixed up in my head. It turned out to be quite a day.

We started out at Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards, where we got to taste with Todd Anderson. He’s clearly quite a character, and his knowledge and experience is matched by the size of his ego, but never in an obnoxious or rude way; we all liked him and had a great time. We tasted several of his wines at a small table inside the caves where the barrels are stored. This was a cool setting and a bit different from your normal tasting bar.

Sauvingon Blanc 2008-- this was whatever the current released vintage is, either 07 or 08, I don’t remember. The first wine of the day, this was pure lemony fruit with nice acidity. A bit more body maybe than an NZ style, and more than the Mayacamas we had later, but not a heavy wine.

Right Bank 2007 – This is a merlot/cab franc blend. Unlike a lot of CA Merlot I’ve had, this is not flabby at all, with strong acidity in a sour cherry finish, and the cab franc adding some nice structure and earthiness. This would go well with food I think.

Cabernet 2007: Big, ripe, fruity, oaky. Lots of tannin on this one. A good example of a big Napa Cab, but nothing outstanding.

Pinot Noir 2007: The women in our group loved this but I was not a fan. Big ripe dark red fruit, and lots of oak. I thought this was overoaked, and it had none of the lithe silkiness that I like in Pinot.

Eloge 2006: This is more like it. This still has plenty of big fruit, with the merlot in the blend pushing it in a blacker direction. But the oak is not as prominent, and it has a little more elegance than some of the others. My favorite of the Conn Valley wines.

Ghost Horse Fantome 2006: This was a surprise. Normally Todd charges a huge fee to taste Ghost Horse, mostly I think to scare away reviewers, journalists, and people he doesn’t like (I hope he doesn’t mind me telling the story, he didn’t have many kind words to say about wine bloggers, but he seems fond of the berserkers crowd). But he’d had a couples bottle open from the previous night for something or other, and he offered to pour us some, although we still had to sign forms proving our identities. I’ve never had any of the cult cabs, so I don’t know how this compares, but this was by far the most intense wine I’ve ever tasted. Just amazing concentration of the fruit on the palate, Plenty of oak of course too, but the oak was mostly supporting, and never overwhelmed the huge fruit flavors. Just immense. Will it age well? Would it pair with food? Is it worth $1000/a bottle? I have no idea. But it was certainly an experience.

Ghost Horse Shadow 2006: This is a newer, lower end bottling under the GH label that Todd sells for $100/bottle. I don’t remember much about it because we tasted it after the Fantome, which overwhelmed this one. Didn’t have the same fruit concentration, oak was much more prominent.

Eloge 2000: They were selling limited quantities of Eloge 99 and 2000 at a pretty good price – $40, or less than half of the $95 for the current release – so Todd opened one for us so we could try it to see if we wanted to buy it. This was poured a bit on the cold side, and probably could have used some decanting, so it was still a bit closed down. But I liked this, it had less powerful oak influence and more of the elegance – more of a bordeaux style wine. I bought a couple each of the 99 and 200 and in a few months I’ll be able to try these properly.

Pinot Gris 2008(?): Todd opened this after one of our friends confessed her love of sweet wines. Tasty nose of baked apple pie, and a rich mouthfeel. I only had one sip of this and don’t remember much more about it.

Next, we worked our way up toward Calistoga to taste at Larkmead. They have a really beautiful facility, all painted white, that fits in very nicely into the landscape of the property. We tasted during a sunny afternoon out on the veranda overlooking the vineyards. It was gorgeous.

Firebelle 2007: A Bordeaux blend, with a significant merlot component, although I don’t remember the percentages. Big without being overwhelming, nice tannin with just a little heat on the finish. Good but for me not on the level as the …

Cabernet 2007: This is a really good wine, one of my favorite wines of the day. Some really nice high-toned dark red fruit, with plenty of structure and just enough earthiness underneath it to keep it balanced. A long, lovely fruit finish with just a touch of acidity. This was seriously good, and probably a good QPR at $60. We didn’t get to try the two reserve wines (called Solari and Salon, I think), but I will be looking out for them in the future.

Syrah 2005: This had been opened the day before. Came from a riverside plot that runs on average 8 degrees cooler than the rest of the vineyard. This is the last Syrah vintage from this winery, as after this year the vines were torn out and replanted with Cab. Well this didn’t have the smoked meat flavors Syrah often has, there was a certain enjoyable meatiness to the fruit. A fruit forward wine, with big red fruit, some nice tannin, and a touch of heat on the end. We had a bottle of this with dinner later and I thought it was a bit too strong for the roasted leg of lamb dish I had.

Meadowlark 2005: 73% Cab/27% Syrah. This was produced under a second label, and I think it’s the only year they made this. Nice flavors of black fruit, I could have sworn this had merlot in it, it had some of those merloty mocha-type notes. A decent wine but a real step down from the others, lacking the depth and complexity. Probably I would have liked it more on its own, rather than coming after the Firebelle and the Cab.

Sauvignon Blanc 2008(?). They don’t sell this anymore, but had opened some for someone else and had a little left. I didn’t taste it, but just sniffed the nose, and there were all sorts of things going on: lemon, asparagus mushrooms maybe. Definitely more old-world in style.

Next we drove the windy road up Mt Veeder to Mayacamas. We were greeted here by Alan, one of the assistant winemakers. This is a fun property to walk around because it’s so old; a couple of the wooden tanks have been in use for a century. This is old-school Napa, both in terms of the winery and the wines. Alan said they pick earlier than nearly anyone else here (at a brix of about 24), sometimes before full phenolic ripeness is achieved, and they use no new oak, even with the Cab. Tasting here formed a really interesting contrast with the other places we visited.

Sauvingon Blanc 2008: A light, clean SB. Lots of lemony citrus flavors, and mouth-wateringly intense acidity. Decent on its own, but we drank some of this at dinner with raw oysters and wow, what a match. The acidity smoothed out just a touch and the flavors started jumping all over the place. I wish we’d had more oysters. A good wine that’s a great food wine.

Chardonnay 2007: No new oak, no malolactic fermentation. Nice lemony flavors, with a bit more body and richness than the SB. Lots of acidity. Really pleasant, made me want to drive straightaway down to Fisherman’s Wharf in SF and get some dungeness crab.

Chardonnay 2004: What just a few years of age will do. The lemony acidity so present in 07 has smoothed a bit in this one, so there’s more melony flavors, more complexity, and a richer, smoother mouthfeel, with enough acidity around to keep it fresh. Very good, better than the 07 (at this point).

Cabernet 1981. A treat. They don’t normally open library wines for visitors but they had an open bottle left over from a party a few days ago, so they poured it for us. At first this had a strong green-beany vegetal aroma, but it blew off after a minute or two. Remarkably primary but amazingly fresh for a 29-year-old wine. This didn’t have much of the leather/tobacco/cedar aromas that I would have expected, but it did have some beautiful black fruit that had a wonderful elegance and purity to it, framed by some hints of mint and eucalyptus. Smooth with just a touch of earthiness, and a long finish. Still some tannin here, and I think this could last a while longer. A fantastic wine that I would have loved to sip for hours.

Cabernet 1980. Left over from the same party as the 81. Not nearly as good as the 81, the fruit had faded here. A bit tart, some soy. Probably open for too long.

Cabernet 2004. Good but needs years. There’s some pretty fruit, but it doesnt jump out all over you. Plenty of acid, plenty of tannin, not a huge wine but structured. If I had bought any I wouldn’t touch it for several years.

Finally, we drove back down to the valley floor and stopped in at Alpha Omega. A very nice tasting room, in a brand new facility, with pretty fountains outside. I was starting to get a little drunk/tired/palate-shot at this point. The woman at the tasting bar (whose name I didn’t catch) was very friendly and seemed to have been drinking just as much as we had. The SB was a slightly weightier style, with a nice lemon purity to it. The Rose had some nice strawberry flavors and a pretty floral character, very nice for sipping outside on a warm summer day. The 06 Proprietary Red had big concentrated dark fruit, with solid but unobtrustive oak. The 07 Proprietary Red was overly oaky and tannic for me; maybe it just needs time to come together.

All in all, a wonderful day in Napa. I wish I could have stayed longer.

Very nice report Corey. I will be going to three of those places (all except Mayacamas) in a few weeks from now. Can’t wait for Anderson’s CV. Is there any ability to purchase the Salon or Solari from Larkmead?

I think the Solari and Salon are both available only via allocation through the mailing list. But there may have been something in the materials they gave us (which I forgot to keep) where you can buy some of each as part of a case in which you buy a bunch other other wines too. I wasn’t interested in buying in quantities like that at this time, so I didn’t pay it much attention. I’d call the winery and ask them about it.

You have to be Firebelle members to get these two wines moving forward.


Good decision on purchasing the Eloge. I purchased the '99 Eloge last year during a visit to the winery and have loved it. Bordeaux-like flavors and aromas, but with California richness and structure.

I wish I had purchased more.


Thanks Rick. Looking at the CT notes, there seems to be some variance in perception (although with an 11 year old wine, storage could be an issue), so a good report is reassuring to hear. How long do you think this wine can last?