Freemark Abbey is a Standout Napa Valley Winery

I just spent ten days tasting wine in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Over that time I visited a ton of wineries and sampled countless wines. The types of visits, the styles of wine and everything else varied greatly. Some wineries had a few wines I liked; one or two had none at all. At precious few I enjoyed the vast majority of what they poured. One of the things that stood out convincingly at Freemark Abbey was the quality of the portfolio from top to bottom. The tasting I had was fairly exhaustive, including not only just about every current release but also reserve wines and a couple of older vintages. One of the older wines I tasted was a single vineyard Cabernet from 1981 (but a bit more on that later). Many of the wines they make are smaller production aimed at their wine club, tasting room and select higher end wine shops. However even the three wines which they make oodles of, and send out into the world at large, are each excellent examples of their varietals. Here’s a look at them.

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The Freemark Abbey 2012 Chardonnay was produced using fruit sourced in four distinct sub-appellations within Napa Valley. This wine is 100 percent Chardonnay. Fermentation took place in stainless steel at a temperature controlled over a period of roughly 22 days. Barrel aging took place over 4 months in a combination of French (86 percent) and American (14 percent) oak; 15 percent of the barrels utilized were new. Thirteen thousand cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $30. Chardonnay happens to be a grape I’m a bit finicky about. When it’s well made in a style I enjoy, I can love it; however that isn’t the case often enough. Granny Smith apple aromas are present on the nose. Anjou pear, yellow delicious apple and a potpourri of spices mark the palate, which is deep, concentrated with flavor and even-keeled. A nucleus of minerals and a continuing core of spices are present on the finish, which has above-average length. The oak on this wine adds some complexity and character but never detracts from the brilliant fruit flavors. It has more in common stylistically with Chablis than the style of Chardonnay most think of as classic Napa.

The Freemark Abbey 2011 Merlot was produced from fruit in a number of Napa Valley sub-appellations. In addition to Merlot (82.3 percent), this wine also has some Cabernet Sauvignon (9.4 percent), Petit Verdot (7 percent), and Cabernet Franc (1.3 percent) blended in. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel over approximately 22 days; 14 months of barrel aging followed. The oak used was a combination of French and American barrels, of which 25 percent were new. They produced 12,000 cases of this vintage, and it has a suggested retail price of $34. Black cherry and violet aromas permeate the nose of this Merlot. Those cherry characteristics (both red and black) continue through the palate along with bits of leather, dark chocolate and a hint of cinnamon. The finish here is long and complex with all of that fruit being joined by wisps of earth and chicory. This is a textbook example of Merlot in the best sense of that term. It tastes like Merlot, which is no small feat; so many examples are, at best, anonymous. The Freemark Abbey Merlot is a fine one, with structure, varietal character and complexity to spare.

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Mumm Napa offers a window into new world sparkling wine

Several times a year, I head out to California to taste wine. Often, I spend the bulk of my time there in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. One of my personal goals each time out is to spend most of my tasting time at producers I haven’t visited, or at least haven’t been to in a long time. Sometimes the properties I haven’t been to yet surprise even me! So on my most recent trip, when I was compiling a list of potential appointments, Mumm Napa was on the short list. Amazingly, even though I’ve tasted in Napa for about 20 years, I never stopped here before.

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Since it was my first time, I arranged a tour and tasting so I could see the facility and then sample the wines. The tour was very consumer-friendly and took us through the winemaking facility with stops along the way to check out videos of their processes. If you’ve toured a winery, but not one that makes sparkling wine, you should do so to note the number of differences and unique steps involved. I’ve been on a number of tours at sparkling wine houses and I‘m still fascinated. Along the way we sampled three of their widely available offerings. The tour was conducted at a nice pace, leaving plenty of time for questions from the group. Once the tour was over I broke off from the group and sat down on their tasting deck with a friend who joined me that day, to do a more comprehensive tasting. They offer lots of different options for tastings at Mumm Napa and it’s a highly recommended stop for those who love California sparkling wine. There were a number of wines that I really enjoyed. Here’s a look at a trio of my favorites.

The Mumm Napa Brut Prestige was made from a combination of Pinot Noir (51 percent), Chardonnay (46 percent), Pinot Meunier (2 percent), and Pinot Gris (1 percent). The first three grapes are the classic triumvirate most often associated with sparkling wine; The Pinot Gris is something out of the standard realm that they have added. Fermentation took place primarily in stainless steel, and 18 months of aging on yeast followed. This widely available Brut style wine has a suggested retail price of $22. Bits of citrus and white stone fruits fill the nose this wine. This is an entry level selection in the Mumm portfolio, and it’s a classic Brut. The palate is dry and loaded with fruit and spice. Yeast and biscuit characteristics emerge on the finish, which has nice length. While the friendly price makes it an obvious choice for holiday celebrations, this wine will go very well with food whether it’s paired with a first course during dinner or alongside brunch. You’ll be pleased with the results.

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First Drive: 2014 Acura RLX

He kept taunting me from the rearview mirror, daring me to bury the needle even further, to more aggressively attack the relentless twists and turns ahead of me, to see just how far I could push this beast of a car I was driving. The motorcycle driver behind me had an advantage, of course, being able to take the hairpin curves of the road at a higher speed than I could, and he also seemed to know the area intimately, weaving his way around each bend in the road with confidence, no matter how severe, as if he knew each was coming miles ahead of time. I too had an advantage, however, specifically the 310-HP V6 engine under the hood of the all-new 2014 Acura RLX I was driving through a winding road in Napa Valley. The biker may have had the upper hand on the curves, but I owned the rest of the road. He’d inch closer when I slowed down ahead of a particularly sharp corner, but the RLX left him in the dust when the road opened up ahead of us again, effortlessly accelerating as I watched the biker shrink in my mirror. Unfortunately, the RLX handled the curves on our route much better than my wife’s stomach did, so I wisely chose marital peace with my white-knuckled passenger over my inflated ego and eventually let the biker pass. But he knew. And I knew he knew.

PERFORMANCE

Clearly, Acura’s new luxury sedan is a blast to drive, which is why they invited us out to Solage Calistoga in Napa Valley to drive the RLX. The twists and turns in the surrounding roads were the perfect setting to test the limits of this direct-injection 3.5L V6 sedan, whose Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) system offered instantaneous and precise control through even the tightest of corners during our test drive. While my wife would argue that I took the turns too fast, the precision the P-AWS system offers assured me that I was only scratching the surface. My biker friend got off easy!

During our time at Solage, Acura talked about the three pillars of their Smart Luxury approach, the first of which is sustainability. The four-door RLX drives and responds like a sports car, displaying impressive agility through the winding roads with instantaneous acceleration, particularly when Sport Mode is enabled. And yet, those 310 horses deliver class-leading economy with 24 combined MPG, including 31 MPG on the highway.

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We also really enjoyed the Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow, which is easily activated from the steering wheel. As someone who relies on cruise control during long drives, I loved how easily this system works, and just how responsive it is. Just set the speed as you normally would with cruise control, then set your desired distance from the car in front of you. The RLX will then speed up and slow down based on how fast or slow the car in front of you is driving. If they come to a stop at a stop sign, you’ll stop too. But, as Acura warned us when we buckled up for our test drive, if that car rolls through the stop sign, you’ll roll right with them! Combined with the Lane Keeping Assist system, this Adaptive Cruise Control speaks to the second pillar in Acura’s Smart Luxury approach: Time is luxury.

INTERIOR

Acura aimed for customization, ease of use and intuitive controls with the RLX. Mission accomplished. Most notable is the debut of the next-generation AcuraLink connected car system, a cloud-based application that allows drivers to access information like near real-time surface street traffic information and media feeds from sources like Twitter and Facebook while providing a Pandora interface, Bluetooth connectivity, text-to-voice SMS texting and much more, all without taking your eyes off the road or even picking up your phone. The RLX also comes standard with a beautiful seven-inch On-Demand Multi-Use Display with audible and tactile feedback, and audiophiles will want to upgrade to the Acura/ELS Studio Premium Audio System, a 14-speaker marvel that was developed with the help of Grammy winning producer and engineer Elliot Scheiner. This system must be heard to be believed.

Gadgets and gizmos aside, the interior of the RLX exudes luxury, with its heated 12-way adjustable seats and the stitched leather on the steering wheel, console and instrument panel, which looked even more impressive all lit up at night. In fact, after our initial late-afternoon test drive, we hopped back into the RLX with a couple of our fellow testers and headed to nearby Cade Winery for an amazing dinner, and the panel was quite a sight. Additionally, the RLX boasts the most spacious five-passenger seating in its class, which our backseat passengers most definitely appreciated on our way to dinner that night.

EXTERIOR

The RLX is quite an impressive piece of machinery, inside and out, with a look that will surely help it stand out in this crowded class. Most striking are the Jewel Eye headlights, a set of 10 LEDs stacked in two rows which give the RLX a distinctive appearance while providing improved brightness, distribution and down-the-road illumination on our drive to Cade Winery.

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While the RLX doesn’t necessarily break any new design ground, it clearly is an improvement over its predecessor, the RL. Most impressive is the RLX’s ability to appeal to those looking for the room of a full-sized sedan while still maintaining the look and feel of a mid-sized sedan with its wide, athletic stance that just begs you to see what’s under the hood.

CONCLUSION

The final pillar of Acura’s Smart Luxury approach is value, and with a base of around $48,000, the RLX has an advantage over competitors like the Lexus GS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Audi A6. Those are some heavy hitters, to be sure, but with the RLX representing improvement by leaps and bounds over the RL, and with a truly impressive set of features that enhances the driving experience, Acura is ready to do some heavy hitting of its own with its new flagship sedan.

  

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