ST. HELENA, Calif. -- There's always a fascination in what's new and different in the Napa Valley -- the latest superstar winemaker, the emerging grape variety, the most recent Taj Mahal/winery to be inflicted upon this treasured landscape.
But sometimes old friends are the best friends, and on a recent, all-too-brief visit to the valley, I had the opportunity to revisit two of the longtime class acts of the wine business.
Beringer Vineyards and Joseph Phelps Vineyards stand a few miles apart on different sides of this small town, the spiritual capital of the California wine industry. Beringer lies north of downtown on the valley's main highway; Phelps lies tucked away in a mini-valley of its own east of town.
The two wineries are different in their size, ownership and corporate history.
Beringer, founded in 1876, is one of the nation's oldest wineries and has grown into a huge producer owned by a multinational corporation. Joseph Phelps is a mid-sized premium winery -- producing about 100,000 cases a year -- and is still owned by the wealthy construction contractor who founded it in 1972.
What the two wineries have in common is their remarkable consistency and stability over the years. Both make exquisite red wines -- Phelps Insignia and Beringer's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon -- that are among the most prized wines in California, but both also display consistent excellence with their least-expensive wines.
The two wineries have both avoided the rapid turnover of winemakers that has left so many of their peers groping for some semblance of a house style.
Beringer's winemaking operations have been led for 18 years by Ed Sbragia, one of California's most brilliant craftsmen. Sbragia, who has been at Beringer since 1976, took on an immense burden when he followed the legendary Myron Nightingale, but his achievements have equaled if not surpassed those of his mentor. Over the past 15 years, no large winery in the world has been more successful at preserving the artisanship of a small estate.
Phelps' winemaking team has been led for almost 20 years by Craig Williams. (Joe Phelps, who splits his time between the Napa Valley and France, lets others run the business but sets the standard for quality and puts up the money for vineyards.)
The two wineries have made significant changes over the two decades I have been following their progress.
Beringer has introduced several lines of less-expensive wines, including the highly consistent Founder's Estate line. It has also added a proprietary red and white called Alluvium, which allow Sbragia and his team to show their skills in blending wine.
The 126-year-old winery, long a master of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, has branched out into less-familiar varietals such a sangiovese and viognier. It has also solidified its reputation as one of the most reliable sources of fine merlot, a varietal that most California wineries have no clue about.
Phelps lost its rights to the acclaimed Eisele Vineyard but has taken its flagship Insignia, the granddaddy of proprietary Bordeaux-style blends, to awesome heights. Once acclaimed for its German-style super-sweet rieslings, Phelps has long since phased out all but one of its dessert wines.
Plagued in the 1980s by a lack of top-quality grapes, Phelps embarked on an ambitious vineyard-acquisition program that added properties in the renowned Carneros, Stag's Leap and Rutherford Bench districts.
Inspired by its owner's passion for the wines of southern France, Phelps has continued to be a pioneer in producing Rhone-style wines. It has also begun to look beyond the Napa Valley for sources of wine grapes. Its latest venture, a 100-acre planting of pinot noir and chardonnay in the cool Sonoma Coast region, will produce its first fruit this year. Wine enthusiasts should anticipate the result eagerly.
For travelers in the valley, the two wineries offer attractions beyond the opportunities to taste the wines and perhaps purchase some that are not available elsewhere.
Beringer's tasting room occupies the 1884 Rhine House, one of the architectural and historical wonders of the Napa Valley. The tasting room is open for tours and tastings without a reservation year-round.
Phelps' winery, one of the most handsome modern structures in the Napa Valley, lies in a small offshoot called Spring Valley. The view of the vineyards from its deck is one of the most picturesque vistas in the Napa Valley. Unlike Beringer, Phelps does not encourage drop-in visitors. For a tour and tasting, call the winery at 707-963-2745 or set up an appointment through its local distributor.
I tasted more that a dozen wines at each winery during my visit. These were some of the most noteworthy:
2000 Pastiche White ($10). This "kitchen sink" blend of four white-grape varieties is a most appealing dry wine with flavors of pear, peach, melons and minerals.
2001 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Viognier ($35). This aromatic dry white Rhone-style wine offers a fruit salad of flavors -- peach, cherry, melons and citrus -- seasoned with hints of minerals and honey. Drink it soon to enjoy its freshness.
2001 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($20). This crisp, clean, snappy white wine is akin to a fine Sancerre from the Loire with its flavors of sweet peas, peach and pear. It's one of the best values in the Phelps line and a natural to serve with grilled seafood.
2000 Joseph Phelps Carneros Chardonnay ($27). This complex, exquisitely balanced wine is one of the more Burgundian-style California chardonnays. There's a lot of baked apple fruit and lemon, and it leaves a creamy feel in the mouth. The oak is well in balance.
1999 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral ($25). This red blend of the syrah and Grenache grapes of the Rhone is a full-bodied, peppery wine with flavors of smoked meat, cherries, wild berries. There's also a very appealing aroma reminiscent of a forest floor after a rain.
2000 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Syrah (barrel sample). Nowadays it seems everyone in Napa is growing syrah, but Phelps was there first in 1974. This huge wine is reminiscent of a great Hermitage of the Rhone. There's a lot of blackberry and pepper in this big boy, which won't see the light of day until next year.
1999 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($42). This wine needs some aging, but it has wonderful potential with its concentrated flavors of black cherry, black currant and blackberry.
2000 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample). This is even more intense and lovely than the 1999, with an extra dollop of chocolate. This is an excellent performance in a challenging vintage. (To be released in October at $45.)
1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia ($125). This is a typical Insignia, which means it's a Napa Valley classic. It's exceptionally complex, with intense blackberry fruit and hints of Asian spices and herbes de Provence. It will need many years to reach maturity, but it's well worth cellaring.
2000 Joseph Phelps Insignia (barrel sample). This is even longer and richer than the 1999, which makes it a potential classic among classics. (Selling as a future now at $125.)
2000 Beringer Alluvium White, Knights Valley ($16). A full, rich, creamy-textured blend of semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier, with hints of mint and exotic fruit.
2000 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay ($14). An oasis in the desert of California chardonnay mediocrity, Beringer scores a triumph with this beautifully balanced, restrained yet flavorful wine. So what's new? It seems to do it every year -- at a decent price and in great quantity.
1998 Beringer North Coast Sangiovese ($30). Only 800 cases were produced, but this wine shows the potential of sangiovese in the right hands. It's a medium-bodied wine with delicious black-cherry and herb flavors. Not bad for a dicey red-wine year.
1999 Beringer Founder's Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($11). Founder's Estate is Beringer's mid-priced line of wines made from grapes purchased from around the state. This one stood out as an incredibly pure expression of what cabernet takes like. It's not the biggest or most complex, but if I were teaching students to recognize the taste of cabernet, this is the wine I'd use. Restaurateurs, take note.
1998 Beringer Alluvium Red, Knights Valley ($30). The St. Emilion-style blend, dominated by 70 percent merlot, is both intense and complex, with flavors of black cherry and chocolate.
1999 Beringer Napa Valley Merlot ($27). Unlike so many California merlots, this one doesn't taste like it's trying to be a cabernet. It has the soft texture of a fine merlot while giving up nothing in the intensity of its black-cherry and blueberry flavors.
1998 Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($27). The cedary, cigar-box aromas are reminiscent of a fine Bordeaux. This complex red avoids the harshness that plagues so many 1998s.
1997 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($100). This wine, from a stunning vintage, is a classic. Astonishing, intense, gripping -- you could run out of superlatives on this baby. I do mean baby, because it should improve over 10 to 30 years.
1997 Beringer Third Century Cabernet Franc, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley ($80). Elegance is the defining trait of this complex wine made from Bordeaux's No. 3 red-wine grape. It's not Chateau Cheval Blanc, but there are whispers of that famous estate. There's great black-cherry fruit, and wasn't that a hint of sun-dried tomato?