A Day in Napa: Nickel & Nickel

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Setting out from the city over the Bay Bridge we were greeted with a fortuitous dash of sunlight. By the time we reached Napa, the clouds were in full remission and the sun set forth to etch out a beautiful day in the valley. After driving past fields of vines dotted with flowering mustard plants, we pulled up to an unassuming red barn for our first appointment of the day.

Nickel & Nickel is, as I have mentioned before, an off-shoot of Napa’s Far Niente. Whereas Far Niente focuses on a single estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the concept behind Nickel & Nickel is to create single varietal wines from single vineyards from the best sites across Napa and Sonoma. On Saturday they were pouring five of their single vineyard Cabs, along with a sampling of a few other varietals. On drinking the wines I was struck by the consistent attention to detail and restraint, both of which reflect the grounded and friendly group of individuals who come together to produce these thoughtful renditions of the classic noble grapes.

We started the day outside with the 2006 Truchard Vineyard Chardonnay from Carneros, which was clean and crisp with intelligent depth and roundness produced not from malolactic fermentation, but from the ripeness of the fruit itself. I think, perhaps, that the acidity demands a proper food pairing, but the wine is lively and accentuated on its own. A very nicely done bottle of wine. Very Good+ to Excellent.

Next on the list, and inside the barn, was the 2005 Copper Streak Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine made in the Stag’s Leap district at a special and very small low-yielding vineyard at the base of the Shafer property. On the nose I found the classic woody cedar notes to be intricately layered with forest-floor and savory herb notes. What seems subtle up front becomes truly expansive on the mid-palate, with cassis, earth, cedar and mint dancing counterpoint and constantly evolving. The finish, while long, promises so much more with bottle age. I would even go so far as claiming this wine to be a long-lost sibling to a left bank Bordeaux. Atypical for California, and a stunning amalgam of fruit, structure, restraint and elegance. Excellent+. $90.

The 2005 Regusci Vineyard Block 4 Cabernet Sauvignon could be described as the more outgoing and fun-loving Stag’s Leap District sister to the more brooding and contemplative Copper Streak. This cab is soft and up front on the nose with distinct red berries and cherries making way for a solid, but easy drinking tannic structure that provides oomph without getting in the way of immediate drinkability. This is unmistakably Californian, and certainly will be enjoyed by those seeking classic Napa cab. Very Good+. $90.

Jumping over to the west side of the valley we next tasted the 2005 Witz End Vineyard Cabernet from Rutherford. This had sweet black cherry fruit throughout the nose and palate, with rich spice notes joining in to add complexity. This is very much a Rutherford Cab, which are a bit too sweet for my tastes. I also didn’t find this as well structured as either of the first two cabs, with the Copper Streak being the standout in that dimension. Nonetheless, this will satisfy those who look for the sweet fruit element in their wine. However, I would recommend the Regusci over this for fruit forwardness and drinkability. Very Good to Very Good+. $90.

Before heading over to taste the last two Cabs we gave the 2005 Suscol Ranch Merlot and the 2006 Ponzo Vineyard Zinfandel a sniff and sip. The Suscol Merlot has its source in the Southern Napa Valley. This wine, with its earthy and dense dark-fruit nose, was the original inspiration for Nickel & Nickel. The palate was jammy but supple with a quality earthy and dusty tannic backbone. I love when merlot is done right – with the right structure the soft and pretty fruit becomes grounded and avoids the cloying sweetness that plagues the average California merlot. Very nicely done: for the real merlot lover. Very Good+ to Excellent. $55.

Similarly, the Ponzo zinfandel avoided what can make zin a controversial grape: the tendency towards high alcohol and overly sweet, super-ripe fruit. The Ponzo vineyard is located in the Russian River Valley at a site where the grapes ripen more evenly than is common for zinfandel. This allows Nickel & Nickel to keep the alcohol at a relatively sane (for zin) 14.9% abv. This has far more structure and tannin than most zins and completely avoids any residual heat on the finish. Still filled with juicy and spicy flavours and aromas, this wine allows the skeptical drinker to experience the joys of zin, minus the set-backs. Other zin-loving drinkers may find this a bit too restrained or tannic for their tastes. Very Good. $48.

Stepping outside onto the crush-pad my colleague Martin and I sampled the two remaining Cabs. First up was the forward Oakville 2005 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet with its classic oakville velvet texture and focus. As Martin commented, this was easy to drink, focused, and linear. I would add that there was a distinct oak character, but that this didn’t overwhelm the herbal blackberry elements. Nicely done, even if not as expansive as the Copper Streak. In the end, its linearity is its charm. Very Good+ to Excellent. $90.

Concluding this Cabernet extravaganza was the 2005 Vogt Vineyard Cabernet from Howell Mountain. For those who aren’t aware, Howell mountain is known, even more than most mountain sites, for its massive tannins due to the increased exposure to sunlight and high elevation. This wine did not dissapoint in that regard. Here we had a massive bruiser of a wine with incredible richness: chocolate and cassis predominated. I would describe this wine as ‘brambly’ and huge. Not for the faint of heart, but power lovers will lap this up. Excellent to Excellent+. $90.

Two hours later we had finally tasted through the fantastic selection of wines and developed a sense of the Nickel & Nickel Style: balance, restraint, focus, and dedication to the unique characteristics of a particular site. There was not a bad wine amongst the bunch and I commend Nickel & Nickel for proving the singularity of some of Napa and Sonoma’s greatest terroirs. Thanks kindly to the winery for giving us the opportunity to taste through such a wide variety of wines. Up next: Cakebread…


  1. Sean
    February 9, 2009

    Bastard. It looks great. Nice write-up, but now I’m thirsty.

  2. Shea
    February 9, 2009

    It was a fantastic tasting – highly recommended wines.

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