A few years ago, I went out to dinner at Ouest with my friends Nick and Louisa. After a thoroughly delicious meal (I can still remember my first taste of the cauliflower custard with parmesan and lobster meat), dessert seemed a lost cause. Nick, always thinking, ordered us a bottle of Far Niente's Dolce. From the first sip, I was entranced. Here was an American wine that rivaled the great Sauternes, ripe with noble rot and sweet as honey.
And so when my mother and I were planning our trip to Napa, I insisted we make a pilgrimage to the home of my favorite dessert wine. Mom was game, particularly given her love for Far Niente's Cabernet Sauvignon. She still tells the story of how she bought a case of it back in the 1980's, and how the single bottle she has left, for which she paid about $10, is now worth about $200. She would return to the vineyard a triumphant collector, and I would get to taste Dolce at its source.
Far Niente was our first stop, and I drove at breakneck speed from Fresno to ensure we wouldn't miss a single minute of the visit. We ended up only missing about 10 minutes, not a bad showing, and joined our tour group on the balcony overlooking the fields and Route 29 beyond them. Far Niente's grounds are exquisite, lush with gardens and fountains, and the view was breathtaking.
From the balcony, we headed down into the cool quiet of the cellars, where we walked past yards and yards of French oak barrels, inside which the precious Cabernet sat, aging to perfection. The winemakers test the wine periodically as it ages, and little dribbles of red stain the barrels. The solution? Paint the barrels evenly with the wine, creating a soft red stripe down the middle of each. The wine ages the barrels, and the barrels age the wine.
On our walk to the wine library, we paused in front of a wrought-iron gate decorated with a golden sign - just beyond lay barrels of Dolce. So close, yet so far!
Once we had seen the library, we trooped back up the stairs to the main reception area, where a long oak table was set with ten places, each with a plate of three cheeses and five glasses. The tasting started with two Chardonnays, one from 2004 and the other from 2005. I preferred the 2004, which was a slightly richer, warmer wine. Both were paired with an Abbaye de Belloc, a French sheep's milk cheese whose caramel flavor went beautifully with the Chardonnays.
Next up, two Cabernet Sauvignons, one from 1998 and the other from 2004. I preferred the 2004 this time around as well. It was smoother and a little less spicy, but still round and full. The Cabernets were paired with a San Joacquin Gold, a creamy, rich cow's milk cheese.
Finally, and most delightfully, the freshly chilled bottle of 2003 Dolce was opened and poured into our waiting glasses. Dolce is a gorgeous honey color, thick-but-not-syrupy in the manner of the best dessert wines, like a good muscat, but redolent of noble rot, like a Sauternes. Far Niente paired the wine with a Bleu d'Auvergne, my most favorite blue cheese. It comes from the Auvergne region of France, and its flavor is strong, robust, but not overpowering - the perfect compliment to the slightly mouldering wine. Yum. And oh-so-pretty.
All in all, a wonderful visit, capped off with a significant purchase of Cabernet, Chardonnay - and, let's not forget, the Dolce. I bought two 375 ml. bottles for my own cellar.
Who wants to come over for dinner?