By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: Winding through the narrow, nausea-inducing passage that is Mt. Veeder Road, I remember why I rarely come this way. It's a gorgeous ride, climbing thousands of feet through oak and vineyard, but after about 20 minutes of cranking my steering wheel left and right around hairpin turns, as locals race up behind and around me, I'm finding the drive less than relaxing, despite the breathtaking views that reveal themselves every few miles.
The wineries of Mt. Veeder (there are more than a dozen, though only a handful are open to the public) are remote outposts high up in the hills, some 2,500 feet above sea level, and a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Napa Valley below. Busloads of tourists don't usually make it this far, so those who do come to taste tend to be here for the wine rather than the gift shops.
Chateau Potelle, owned since the late 1980s by Jean-Noel and Marketta Fourmeaux du Sartel, sits at 1,800 feet, making it one of the highest wineries in the region and giving visitors some of the best views around. But despite the rather schmancy moniker, there's no chateau to be found, and the tasting room is little more than a cozy little outbuilding with a chatty tasting staff and a friendly Dalmation just waiting to greet you. Oh, and some pretty tasty wines.
Mouth value: As former wine spies--actually employees of the French government's wine program, charged with investigating what California had to offer--Jean-Noel and Marketta have a pretty good idea of what good wine is supposed to taste like. Their less expensive house wines, like the 2003 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($19) with a nice balance of fruit and soft oak or Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc ($15), are generally pretty outstanding. Using grapes from as far away as Paso Robles, winemaker Marketta makes a strong Syrah and an interesting meritage of Syrah, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot (Cougar Pass 2001, $25) that's definitely worth a try. What you're here for, however, are the VGS ("very good shit") wines. The standout is the 2003 Zinfandel ($55), that is getting rave reviews, and deservedly so.
Don't miss: Give the Once in a Blue Moon dessert wine ($20) a chance as well. An unusual late harvest Chardonnay, it's light, delicately perfumed and comes in a nifty blue bottle imported from France.
Five-second snob: Because of the height and incline, the grapes on the slope of Mt. Veeder have to put down very deep roots and work extra hard to survive. Winemakers say this creates a sort of stress that makes their grapes more concentrated. Says Jean-Noel, "Vines which do not have to work, like those on the Napa Valley floor, are looser, with less intensity--they have love handles because they relax and watch the traffic go by!"
Spot: Chateau Potelle Winery, 3875 Mt. Veeder Road, Napa. Tasting room open daily, 11am to 5pm. Tasting fee, $5. 707.255.9440.
From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.