Yountville, in the center of Napa Valley, is a small, walkable town, and almost embarrassingly picturesque. In mid-March, the vineyards that stretch from the Vacas range to the Mayacamas are bright lemon-yellow, the temperature is making a speculative play for sundress weather, and annuals are going in at the living crazy-quilt that is The French Laundry’s kitchen garden. Just north of that is the only Restoration Hardware store with a standalone full-service restaurant. It’s a bizarre spot, with its alleys of crystal chandeliers and exposed wood-thoroughly branded but kind of its own thing too-and admittedly beautiful and full of high-end things to put in your mouth.
Yountville Live is kind of the same thing: Decidedly corporate-branded but honestly still enticing and definitely a showcase of luxuries most of us can’t hope to be surrounded by on a normal day. A VIP pass for the whole festival will set you back about $2500, so it’s not exactly the farmer’s market (though it shares a vibe with a tony farmer’s market for sure). Chefs and winemakers showcase their stuff in creative pairings. Recording artists take the stage at several locations around the small downtown, playing to audiences full of record label A&R folks. The Mayor is shaking hands with people and generally acting like he has the coolest job in the world, and I’m not sure he doesn’t. Everywhere you look there is a badass chef offering a perfectly composed bite, a winemaker pouring tastes of everything from the Bordeaux varietals the region is famous for, to a few things most of us have never heard of. Everyone is, by all visible indications, having a blast.
Over four days, Yountville Live participants get treated to intimate gatherings and big old crowds; seminars and demonstrations; concerts and cocktails; Cabernet and high-end chocolate. Saturday night’s “Red Carpet Gala” consisted of a happy hour, a paired four-course meal and a little concert. As far as festivals go, it’s pretty damned refined and human-scale, and it definitely does that Napa Valley thing of persuading you that there are people who live like this every day, in a wonderland of the senses, and that you are one lottery ticket away from being one of those people.
I had a great time, met some interesting folks, ate way too much, and listened to quite a bit of music, but I was theoretically there for the wine, which ran the gamut from sub-radar to major league and from the immediate area’s superstar varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc) to some funky obscure ones (Round Pond has a rosé Nebbiolo that’s totally delicious; Falcor has a varietal Graziano). Yountville Live is a friendly, sense-saturating kind of scene and if you are a food and wine worshipper it’s well worth putting on your list.
5 Standout Wines from Yountville Live
Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley Fumé Blanc
Grgich wines are elegant, always have been, and they consistently make what I think is one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in Napa. The term “fume” means “smoked” and once in a while you will detect a smokelike note on this stuff, but the term refers to the clinging ground fog that wafts through the vineyards in both Napa and the grape’s native land of Bordeaux. This Sauv Blanc is not smoky (or grassy), it’s a citrus-fest through and through, with bright, jewel-like acidity and a Meyer lemon and orange zest approach. Grapefuit and cream intertwine on the finish. It’s very balanced and a wonderful aperitif; also a great seafood wine.
Unlike Grgich, which is well-distributed and easily found at your local supermarket, Handwritten is a bit low on the radar for Napa Valley and it’s probably my most exciting find of the weekend. All the Handwritten wines I tasted were great (a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir with a seriously dirty mind and a Sauv Blanc with a sweet hay quality were both standouts) but their Chardonnay deserves a shout for being so balanced and reasonable in the land of overextracted, loudmouth Chards. While certainly nowhere near as bony and minimalist as a Chablis, this is not the pineapple-upside-down-cake-in-a-glass kind of Chardonnay. It’s lithe and very floral (neroli, gardenia, jasmine, lemon blossom and lemongrass) with a substantial, orange-marmalade note mid-palate and traces of ginger on a lingering finish.
Jessup Cellars Los Carneros Pinot Noir
Los Carneros is Pinot heaven, and great things happen to that grape in the right hands. In this case, cherry things happen. Also pomegranate things, alpine strawberry things, and baking spice things. Vanilla things. Smoky things. Cherry Coke for adults things.
Peju Province Wines 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon
There’s a cleanness and clarity to this Cabernet that make it very food friendly. The predominating notes are raspberry and plum with a decent hit of vanilla and a leathery finish with a slight hint of something sugary-smelling (toasted marshmallows? I think?) and a little trace of cinnamon. Good structure, tannins in the “dusty” range, uncomplicated and solid.
ZD Wines Cabernet Sauvignon
I had this paired with a cardamom chocolate mousse and it was a smashing combo. Layered and dense, it opens with currant and cherry and plum, followed by cedar, toast and vanilla. Licorice and clove hang out on the finish. The overall impression is powerful but approachable.