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Stephen Pavy, far right, with two of his hospitality staff and me, far left, at Joseph Phelps

NAPA VALLEY,Ca. – Brands, labels, and market awareness means someting in consumer goods. Usually such awareness is because of quality, longevity, or proven success.

We wash our clothes with Tide, buy Campbell’s soup, and eat Oscar Meyer cold cuts. We do it because these companies have consistently delivered high quality and reliable product.

I write those three sentences and realize I’m about to compare wine to bologna but there is some truth in the concept at least.

Today was our “Napa Valley” day and we made four winery stops. We stopped at V. Satui Winery in St. Helena, at Napa’s north end, and later in the day at the picturesque Rutherford Hill Winery along the Silverado Trail in Napa. They were very nice stops I’d recommend to any Napa visitor – first timer or veteran.

But the day was really stolen by the iconic brands – Mondavi and Joseph Phelps. When I travel to various wine regions I consistently find opinions I’ll share with readers here and my newspaper column. My opinions are shaped first by the wine but second, and nearly as important, by the people behind the tasting room counter. A great product keeps the customer coming back but when you visit in person the authentic smile, enthusiasm and product knowledge make it easier to spend the big  bucks on these iconic wines.

I always tell inquistors that the Robert Mondavi winery is a must stop. Mondavi had either the first or nearly the first tasting room in Napa Valley. He personally shaped the American wine industry and single-handedly made Napa the wine tourist destination it is today.

Visitors can opt for the $5 tasting of Mondavi’s lower end labels. I’ve written about those in a couple of newspapers columns and singled out the Private Selection label as a great value buy.

Mondavi’s gracious hostess, Sanda

But today I opted for the $30 premium tasting of six wines and was overwhelmed. A big part of the positive experience was Sanda Manuila, wine education coordinator, a Swiss native, and the most charming hostess you could ever have pour you $100-a-bottle wines.

We started with the Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve. I’ve had the $20 bottle and loved it. This was my first chance to taste the $40 Reserve and its was simply fabulous with intense and rich fruit with just the right amount of acidity.

Sanda poured Drew and I a 2010 Pinot Noir sold only at the winery under the PNX label. It was rich fruit, nice acidity and beautiful balance.

We then worked our way through four of the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve wines. Wow! Each one offered a different level of smooth but bold Cab taste and balance of acidity depending on the time spent in oak barrels. These wines are far beyond the price point I usually feature here or the newspaper column. But if you go to Napa, you owe it to yourself to taste these wines. The four we tasted ranged from $135-$165. These big Cab’s scream … ‘Classic Napa Valley Cabernet.”

Obviously, these wines aren’t for everyone and the price point may make readers just shake their head. Try the Mondavi Napa Cab for about $28 and you won’t be disappointed.

Joseph Phelps has become an iconic brand on the strength of its Insignia blend which has long been a critic’s favorite. It has been a 90-point-plus wine virtually every year since its initial release in 1974. The current release is a 2008 and comes at $200 a bottle. It’s the ultimate in luxiuous red wine from one of Napa’s top producers.

Drew and I were fortunate enough to be hosted by Indiana native and Phelps’ Director of Hospitality Stephen Pavy. Stephen turned us over to Geraldine for a wine seminar. If any place has a right to be a bit haughty, patronizing, or condescending, it’s might be Phelps. But Pavy’s staff was helpful, drew us into the wine conversations, answered questions and were quite frankly charming.

We tasted the Phelps $32 Sauvignon Blanc, Freestone Chardonnay and Pinot Noir before moving to their signature Cabernet. The 2009 Cabernet at $55 is one of the best I’ve tasted at the price point. Stephen actually treated us Monday night to the Cab before Tuesday’s visit to the winery. It has concentrated fruit with great back end acidity. This will shake some readers but I often refer to wines tasting above their price points. This $55 Cab tastes like a more expensive wine.

The tasting highlight though was the chance to sip the signature Insignia. The critically acclaimed wine scored off the charts with our palate but what would you expect from a  $200 bottle of wine? It definitely lives up to it’s reputation!

The Phelps name is synomous with Cabernet but not the huge producer some might think. The winery produces 55,000-60,000 cases of wine annually.

Our other two stops were great but frankly the service was more perfunctory than genuine – at least until I pulled out my wine writing business card. I don’t always do that until after I’ve tasted.

Now all of that being said, I’d recommend V. Satui in St. Helena to most visitors. It’s a very unique stop in that they don’t distribute their wines beyond the winery. That’s almost unheard of in Napa. The wines are all done in a lighter style and I thought the wines were good. The Gamay Rouge wasn’t to my taste but is Satui’s biggest seller. It has wonderful Gamay flavor and 1.5 percent residual sugar. That sweetness makes it a big hit with the tour bus crowd.

Rutherford Hill Winery has a beautiful facility, wine storage caves, and some great views of Napa. The wines were consistently okay with the highlight being their reserve Merlot. The 2007 Merlot was as good as any I’ve ever tasted, but as a Merlot skeptic I had to ask myself if I’d really fork over $57 for Merlot. Would you?

We had a really great day in wine country. Wednesday we start our day at a barrel maker with Eric Miller of Kokomo Winery. We intend to explore the town of Sonoma in the afternoon.

My travel companion Drew Casey has some marvelous photos from today’s adventure beyond the three I’ve included here. I hope to get those up Wednesday.

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