Today we raise a plastic stadium cup to the best cheap beer, or the cheapest good beer that I’ve ever seen – lager and porter made by Yuengling Brewing Company, which advertises itself as the oldest brewery in the US. If you’re a fan of historical brewing and you live in America, you can’t visit a tastier patch of living history without taking a long swim.
Some of you might complain that nobody who makes a ‘light’ beer deserves the extra three or four bucks that a lucrative Balloon Juice spot will scare up. Piffle. If it’s good enough to go in my fridge without embarrassment, and their lager and porter most definitely are, then it’s good enough to blog about. I haven’t tried their ale yet because I’ve only seen it in variety packs and I will draw the line at buying a variety case that includes light beer (at least they didn’t spell it ‘lite.’ ech.), but you can read what serious beer drinkers think of Yuengling’s products here. I’ve seen much more expensive beers get a much cooler reception.
Today’s non-beer alternative answers the question, where the heck was Tim F. for two weeks? The answer is that aside from the conference and drunken bouts of Battlefield Vietnam, Tim drove up to Napa with a friend from Sweden (FFS) and some new guy whom I’d never met (SNG). While the new guy meant that we couldn’t take FFS’s MR2 Spyder, making Tim somewhat grumpy, SNG turned out to practically have a PhD in Napaology. That last bit turned out to be crucial when circumstances left us with only an afternoon to work with, I knew next to nothing about CA wine and FFS thought that we should start with Mondavi.
Let’s get out of the way that I arrived bearing warnings about the California fruit bomb, a style whose exuberant fruit overwhelms what little tannins and acidity your average Napa red might have and gives the bottle a shelf life only slightly longer than a Beaujolais Nouveau. That proved fairly accurate for some wines that we tried, and at least a little accurate for most, with some spectacular exceptions. One winery that I’ll allow to go nameless decided for some ungodly reason to uncork a 1991 Cab for tasting. I had nightmares for a week.
Whites were overall passable, but not what I’d describe as subtle. Maybe someone can explain to me why they grow Sauvignon Blanc and Voignier rather than grapes that actually benefit from a sweet strength like Riesling and Gewurtz. I even passed on a late harvest bottle for what might be the first time ever because I thought the Sauvignon Blanc was already a bit on the sweet side, although it’s fairly well-regarded by reviewers.
However, everywhere we went had at least one standout wine that made it well worth the trip. Our first stop, Turnbull Wine Cellars, netted a Cabernet that I’d describe as rich and intense, with enough tannins to keep for a few years at least. Turnbull also hosts the world’s largest collection of art photography; take a minute to look around the tasting room and you’ll spot originals by Kertesz, Ansel Adams, Dianne Arbus, Man Ray and Paul Strand, among many others. A must-visit for photography buffs.
St. Supery posed the classic dilemma – what I loved I couldn’t afford, and what I could afford I didn’t love.
Their Dollarhide Ranch limited-edition Cab (2001) stands as one of the great reds that I have ever tried. Complex and deep, and keep it for as long as you damn well please. It’ll remain a pleasant memory until some generous benefactor decides that a front-page shout-out at Balloon Juice is worth $70 a bottle.
Rutherford Hill showed why it is that people grow the Merlot grape in the first place, and why hard-to-reach cellars with spectacular architecture can predispose people to like your stuff. Wine Enthusiast practically wrote their review of their 2001 Reserve in tongues (94). More impressive (thanks to SNG for pointing it out), their plain-jane Merlot is almost as good, and affordable enough for me to carry home a bottle, plus a surprisingly-subtle-for-California Petit Verdot.
It’s ok to drink Merlot. Seriously.
Freemark Abbey decided to hold a Christmas party rather than let us in, which SNG declared was a major loss on our part. Franciscan Winery offered some quality but not (in my opinion) memorable bottles; I carried home a 2003 Cab which I liked a bit better, surprisingly, than their custom-blended prestige label.
On the return we picked up a bottle of 2003 Merlot by Shafer Vineyards, which SNG insisted that I’d be absolutely crazy to miss. Will report back in a year or two whether he was right.