OAKVILLE The line snaked dozens deep as Taste of Oakville kicked off last week at Robert Mondavi Winery. It's the closest you'll find to a stampede in the domestic wine world, with wine merchants, media and industry types all clutching their glasses and notebooks thirsty to try the latest high-end wines from Napa's Oakville appellation.
And it's always a mob scene at the start to get a taste of Screaming Eagle, a cabernet sauvignon that sells for $750 per bottle to its wine list members (and good luck getting a spot on that list) and sells for closer to $1,500 at high-end wine merchants. The Screaming Eagle crew brings only a few bottles to this tasting, so if you don't get your half-ounce pour in the first 20 minutes, better luck next year, pal.
Stuart Spoto, who runs Spoto Wines out of his Arden Oaks home, could only chuckle as the mob fixated on getting tiny pours of Screaming Eagle, basically ignoring his bottle offerings.
"Hey, there's wine here, too," Spoto called out to the crowd. "Try our '06 Cuvée Arianna."
There weren't many takers at first, with Spoto Wines situated right next to Screaming Eagle's table. Yet soon enough the day turned fruitful for Spoto, landing new accounts for his wines and showing that a Sacramento winery could hold up against some of Napa's elite brands.
"Wow, what a day," said Spoto during a quick break from pouring. "It's quite an honor to be here. I'm like a kid in a candy store."
Napa's Oakville appellation is only about four miles wide, but home to an especially rich concentration of California's most coveted trophy wines. We're talking wineries such as Harlan Estate, Opus One, Bond and Dalla Valle bottles produced in small amounts that will set you back hundreds of dollars.
Oakville is renowned for its variety of rich soils, a microclimate that's a little cooler than at the northern end of the Napa Valley, and exorbitant land values. Some of the most elite vineyards here cost around $450,000 per acre.
Though Spoto Wines calls Sacramento home, many of its grapes are sourced from Oakville near the University of California, Davis', research vineyards. Some of the most heralded vineyards in the domestic wine world are neighbors, including the legendary Martha's Vineyard and plots farmed by Opus One and Harlan Estate.
Trying to stand up against these big dogs at the Taste of Oakville, now that's tough.
The crowd, jostling from table to table and trying not to spill, was thick with restaurant wine buyers, including Doug Nitchmann of The Kitchen. Nitchmann had passed on Spoto Wines before, finding previous examples a little to oaky for his taste. But after sampling at Spoto Wines' table, Nitchmann decided to order some 2008 Spoto Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for The Kitchen.
"I liked the blackberry flavor and the big finish," said Nitchmann.
Others raved that Spoto Wines were among the best in the whole tasting. Robert Beaudry, a personal wine shopper based in Rocklin, was struck by Spoto Wines' quality at a price point that was just a fraction of some blue-chip bottles at Taste of Oakville. Though $85 for Spoto's reserve cabernet sauvignon still counts as a splurge for most of us, just about anything under $100 at Taste of Oakville is considered a steal.
"I've tasted them all, and (Spoto) is the hit of the tasting," said Beaudry. "The challenge here is price point. This is the best geography in the world for cabernet, and when you have good value and good taste, what's not to like?"
Taste of Oakville lasts just two hours, and it's been a whirlwind of tasting and swirling. Some of the star bottles have long been tapped out, including the 2006 Bond St. Eden and a breathtaking 1994 Maya poured by Dalla Valle proprietor Naoko Dalla Valle.
Spoto, with his shirt cuffs rolled up and flanked by wife Christy and daughter Arianna, looks ready for a celebratory glass.
"This helped get Spoto Wines into the mainstream," said Spoto. "We had people coming to the table saying they'd heard our wine was one of the best in the tasting. It was flattering, and we were humbled to be here."