As many of you know by now, my wife’s parents live in the far East Bay area of Northern California and we visit quite often. While the kids get to hang out with their cousins (my wife’s brother also lives in the area) and get spoiled by their grandparents, my wife plays her role of the dutiful middle child to perfection. There are some perks for me as well, which includes being able to ride my bike (I keep one at my in-laws house) on the slightly dangerous roads of Eastern Conta Costa County (it is pretty clear to me now that they do not see a lot of people who combine lycra and shaved legs out there).
I also get to go to wine country quite a bit.
So I can’t really complain (but I still do, of course).
Last week, my wife and I decided to have a mini-escape to Napa for the day. We rarely go to Napa anymore, since I find the stories and wine more compelling in neighboring Sonoma County. This time, though, some friends were going to be joining us and I had lined up a tasting at Mumm Napa.
Opinions on Mumm Napa seemed to be mixed. I believe their wines are largely appreciated, and I consider their sparkling wines to be close to the standard in the Valley. Perhaps it is not fair, but I compare domestic sparklers against the “Mumm Yardstick.” That is not to suggest that all other sparkling wines fall flat when compared to Mumm, but rather I use Mumm (at least at some level) as my reference point for quality bubbles outside of Champagne.
Detractors point to Mumm’s sheer size (they produce around 400,000 cases of wine every year) and the number of times the winery has changed hands (although founded by the G.H. Mumm Champagne House in 1983, Mumm Napa has been bought and sold numerous times by the large beverage conglomerates, and is currently owned by Pernod Ricard, which, coincidentally, also owns G.H. Mumm in Champagne). But through all the relatively recent changes there has been a constant: the winemaker, Ludovic Dervin, has been at Mumm since 2002. I guess it might be considered a bit of an oddity in the valley that a winemaker has stayed for over a decade despite the winery changing hands numerous times, but it has resulted in remarkably consistent quality.
Our guide for the day was Eric Colalella, who directs many of the private tastings at Mumm. As Eric’s personal story unfolded, he quickly became a hero of mine–he moved to Napa just two years ago from Western Pennsylvania with his wife. Neither had a job lined up, but they had been spending almost all of their vacations in Northern California, developing a deep passion for wine. One day, Eric told his wife that they were no longer going to spend their vacations in Wine Country–he wanted to move there.
And they did.
Eventually, after sending out dozens of applications, he got a job at Mumm, working his way up, driven by his love of wine and desire to learn. Eric first took us on a tour of the facility, which I had never seen despite my many years as a club member (Mumm was one of the first wine clubs that I joined back when I was living in Marin County, and I would always stop at the tasting room when I came up to the Valley).
We eventually moved to the terrace, which has a beautiful view of the Valley, to taste through a few wines. Eric had set up a mini blending session for us–something that I had done only once before, and not with sparkling wine.
In the traditional method (i.e., the “Champagne Method”) of making sparkling wine, the first step is to produce a still wine, which is then bottled with some additional yeast and sugar, causing a second fermentation in the bottle, creating the sparkle. For our blending exercise, Eric had grabbed a couple of bottles of the still wine (a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir) from the first step of the process–wine that was intended to become sparkling wine, but had not yet gone through the second fermentation.
We first tasted the still wines, and then started blending them together in different proportions. With each step, Eric poured one of Mumm’s sparkling wines that had roughly the same ratio of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that we had just created with the still wines. The whole exercise was fantastic, first tasting the individual elements and then understanding how each influences the overall whole was incredible.
But we were not done.
Eric then pulled out multiple vintages of Mumm’s prestige cuvée, the DVX (named in honor of Mumm Napa’s founder Guy Devaux), which we sampled as we took in the view of the Valley. We went through at least eight different DVX vintages, each of which was spectacular.
You no doubt have noticed by this point, that there are no tasting notes for any of the wines that we tried with Eric. At first, during the blending, I was so enthralled with the activity, I simply forgot. Once I remembered, I decided against taking notes–there are just times when the whole experience is greater than the sum of the parts.
And this was certainly one of them.
I have always been a fan of Mumm’s wine and that morning’s (and early afternoon) tastings underscored my sentiments several fold.
Many thanks to Eric–one could not ask for a better host.