What I Did at (Wine) Summer Camp

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What I Did at (Wine) Summer Camp

So, I spent the night in a tent on the grounds of a winery recently. Which I didn’t even know was a thing.

Charles Krug, one of the oldest and most storied wineries in Napa Valley, hosted a “Cab Camp” (to be fair, it wasn’t just Cabernet: Sauvignon Blanc is the breakfast wine) recently. These people are – how to put it? – not pikers. They’ve been honing their art since the late 19th century, and the Peter Mondavi family has continuously owned and operated the place since the 1940s. By the way, there are very few wineries who can say that. These folks are proud of their history. But when I heard Peter Mondavi Jr. answering another camper’s question with, “Yeah, we should talk about that when we open the ’66,” I admit I did think it was a figure of speech.

It wasn’t a figure of speech. They opened a 60-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon for us. There are people in the wine world who are immersed and connected and jaded enough not to be remotely dazzled by that, I am sure. I am glad I am not one of them because a six-decade vertical tasting flight is not something I would never want to take for granted.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. If you have never been to Napa Valley but have some image in your mind about ultra-luxe, super-gracious, “this-is-Eden” kind of vibes? Charles Krug will not dismantle that vision. From getting a rundown on the current production facility while pouring a little Chardonnay in the architectural-masterpiece tasting room, to unbelievably fabulous food on the fabulous park-like lawn (we got to grill our own steaks, and there were six different kinds of salt. With tasting notes. Yes, really.), to touring some pretty magical vineyards on Howell Mountain, to sitting around the campfire with a history lesson and the most high-end s’mores you will ever encounter… to the tents, which were arguably nicer than some of the rooms in my house, where you could fall onto a remarkably comfy bed in a dazed stupor after drinking more wine and eating more food than you would have thought possible. And you do need to get your rest because that six-decade vertical is immediately following coffee and pastries from a superstar bakery.

What did the ’66 Cab taste like? Different from minute to minute – wines that old are a bit unstable and their flavors and aromatics will shift rapidly upon meeting oxygen. But damned good. But the short answer is that it tasted like Time. A little spectral, like the ghost of a current release Cab – subtle earth and even subtler fruit notes, a faintly subdued nose and a slightly paler color (more garnet than the feisty, near-opaque red-black of young cabs) – but very much still a great wine.

If St. Helena is on your path, you’d be plain foolish not to make Charles Krug a stopping point. I do not say that about many wineries in this neck of the woods, where there is, in my humble opinion, a snob cachet factor that isn’t in keeping with the quality of the experience or the beverages (not naming names). Yes, many wineries in this area produce Damn Good Wine (the pathological over-oaking of Chardonnay notwithstanding), but I can tell you that few of them hold a candle to Charles Krug for sheer graciousness, not to mention history in a bottle. This was one of the most eye-opening wine-tasting experiences I have ever had. And, uh… I’ve had a few.

Happily, you don’t have to trek to St. Helena to experience the wine – Krug is widely distributed and can be had, depending on the bottle, for $18 to $30 for their larger production run releases (they do have some limited releases that retail for quite a lot more). The current release Cab, 2013, is a Napa Valley classic, expressing intense blackberry and black plum, currant, chocolate and vanilla. Fruit forward but grounded – a Napa Valley classic. Their Sauv blanc is tropical yet bright, the Chardonnay balanced and lovely, and my firm stance against Malbec took a staggering blow.

My prejudice toward the small, the weird and the maverick and away from the old guard Big Guys took an even bigger punch. Peter Mondavi, you rule. Winemaker Stacy Clark — ditto.

Best. Camping trip. Ever.

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