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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

The Secret to Del Dotto Wine - it's the Barrels

Friday, March 2, 2012
I’d wanted visit Del Dotto winery for a couple of years, and was growing tired of people asking if I’d been to Del Dotto yet and only being able to reply in the negative. So we finally joined one of their infamous tours, taking a group of friends with us to join in on the adventure. We arrived right at noon to Del Dotto, located right next to the famous Silverado Country Clubon Atlas Peak Road. There is very little signage in front, but look for all the ivy covering a historic looking building on the west side of the road. I scheduled a group cave experience & barrel tasting tour in advance, which is worth the $50 price tag - The tour is 90 minutes to 2 hours long and for most of it, you walk through the very historical caves which were hand dug in 1885, following your guide from one wine barrel to the next sampling wine. That is the core of the tour and because of this focus, you taste a lot of wine here - other wineries have told me they actually reject groups for private tours if they hear the group has previously come from Del Dotto.

After assessing our personal wine preferences, our guide, Dan, dove into the history of Del Dotto and the man, Dave, behind the winery’s notably robust reds. To briefly summarize Del Dotto’s history, in the late 1980’s, Dave Del Dotto, originally from San Jose, California, was tasting wine to purchase for his personal collection in Napa at Heitz Cellar, known for it’s big Napa Cabs. While there, Dave got a “sign” that he should purchase wine making land of his own- literally, he saw a “For Sale” sign advertising the vineyards right next to Heitz along St Helena highway. Dave purchased his first vineyards where he began growing grapes in 1990. When his first wine, vintage 1993, was released, it received a 92 point rating by Wine Spectator and ‘94, ‘95 and ‘96 vintages followed suit with the same high 92 point rating. As the winery grew and thrived, Dave found the Atlas Peak Sacred Caves which became the home for his new winery. In 2000, Del Dotto opened the caves to the public, and started an educational program to teach customers how wine barrels can so strongly affect wines. There are now two Del Dotto locations in Napa - the second winery recently opened along St. Helena Highway and has been described as “the most beautiful winery in Napa”. But while that location may be the new girl on the block, the Atlas Peak caves win out with historic charm.

One thing you will surely take away from a tour and tasting at Del Dotto besides a "buzz" is just how much of an influence barrels can have on a wine. Dave Del Dotto and his winemaker, Nils Venge, have been experimenting with over 40 different barrels from various coopersfrom France, America and Russia. They have invented and trademarked some awesome barrel techniques such as combining and coopering French and American oak in the same barrel to give it a uniquely balanced flavor profile - a perfect blend of New and Old World style wine. They’ve also carved grooves into the insides of some of their toasted oak barrels to give the wine more exposure to the sweetness found deeper in the wood (think...where does maple syrup come from after all?). The tour featured several demonstrations of how changing the barrel a wine ages in can affect a wine so much that it tastes like a different vintage or varietal. Del Dotto is actually the only winery that actually labels bottles of wine with the actual types of barrels they’re aged so that folks who prefer French Oak’s more delicate vanilla flavor can have their 2007 French Oak-aged Cab and those who like American Oak’s meatier flavor can have their 2007 Cab labeled as such. It’s an interesting concept and works for these big full-bodied wines that lend themselves well to the secondary notes derived from the wood.

Overall, the quality and variety of wine tasted was impressive and they were all served to us straight from the barrels in a beautiful authentic candlelit cave with Italian opera arias echoing throughout the venue. The easy-going pace of the tour allowed us to linger, chat with each other and enjoy an overall jovial experience. We were led back out to the beautiful tasting barrel room, where a delectable display of cheeses, charcuterie and chocolate was displayed for us to enjoy along with lone final taste of the late harvest zinfandel - perfectly paired with chocolate. From a marketing standpoint, Del Dotto definitely gets it right; by the end of the tour, it was hard not to purchase the wines, which are priced on the higher end of the spectrum even for Napa. If you’re a first time Napa visitor, or just looking for a different wine tasting experience, this is a great place to visit. Plus - the location is ideally located on the Silverado trail, five minutes away from Downtown Napa, so you’ll be close to a great assortment of restaurants and the Oxbow Market to help you soak up some of the damage from this bachanalian experience! My tasting notes are below:

2010 Pinot Noir- Cinhiale Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir - $75.00 per bottle
This is a big pinot that is dark, vibrant and full-bodied with ripe fruit flavors. The 2010 immediately shows its concentration of fig, wild strawberry and winter spice, from nose to palate. Delicate notes of wild flowers and light perfume continue to emanate from the glass. The entry is silky smooth and soft and flows seamlessly across the palate with a rich, elegant lingering finish.

2010 Napa Valley Sangiovese - $55.00 per bottle
This is a dark, fruity Sangiovese, beautifully balanced with baked and dried dark fruit flavors and slight notes of earth, chocolate, flowers and leather. It has an opulent finish and should age well as a Brunello would.

2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - $65.00 per bottle
A beautiful bouquet of plum and currants leads to a full fruit forward highly concentrated wine layered with cloves and peppercorns. This wine is reminiscent of fall pies and warm evenings by the fire. With a dark ruby color and the aroma of the forest floor, this wine has a silky finish with notes of vanilla creme brulee. Though ready to drink now, this wine will continue to develop with age.

2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc - $85.00
This cab has a solid structure with aromas of wet rock and freshly cut herbs. The palate has bright red cherry, green pepper and a slight caramelized brown sugar character, with a bit of wood tannin.

Other notable wines tasted:
2010 Oakville Cab - Centre Sylvain - $145.00
2010 Oakville Ca - Missouri U Stave South - $145.00
2010 Cabernet St. Helena Mountain Colbet Block 2 - $165.00
Port Wine Syrah - $55.00

Photo Credits:
Photography by Gunnar Counselman.

Photos feature: Anna Mongayt, Basia Terrell, Chris Terrel, Garrett Gaudini, Gunnar Counselman, Matthew Smith and Danica Steinle

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