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Valentine's Day Wine Picks and C. Elizabeth Wines

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

There may be no other holiday as contrived as Valentine’s Day. A Hallmark occasion that leaves little forgiveness for the scrooges who forget, it is a holiday that handsomely rewards florists, greeting card companies and candymakers the most. But if there is one redeeming value to the centuries-old holiday with murky origins, it is to embrace love.

And that brings us to the story of Christi and Dave Ficeli, a Napa Valley couple who while engaged dreamed of owning a winery – and then bought one several years later. Not everyone can realize wedding dreams this extravagant, but Christi Coors, the granddaughter of beer magnate Adoph Coors, had a head start.

Christi was learning the wine trade at E&J Gallo when Cupid landed on her shoulder in the name of Dave Ficeli. During the courtship, the lovebirds stopped at a Napa Valley wine bar and got caught up in the bartender’s exuberant description of a syrah. Over dinner one night, they dreamed of creating a cabernet sauvignon that could evoke an equal reaction.

Christi spent some time in the Coors family business while Dave was with Beringer Blass Wine Estates. The couple got married in 2003 and hung onto their dream despite a couple of detours to the Midwest.

Christi’s acquisition of Goosecross in 2012 reunited them with Napa Valley and winemaker Bill Nancarrow who discovered an exceptional source to fulfill the couple’s dream project of making extraordinary cabernet sauvignon.

Thus was born C. Elizabeth, named after three inspiring Elizabeths in the Coors family. The launch of the 2014 vintage got the desired impact at $150.

“We wanted to do something that mattered to us. That’s always been our goal,” Christi said during a virtual tasting of C. Elizabeth wines.

Nancarrow, a New Zealand native who made wine for Duckhorn Wine Company for 10 years, was involved in rehabilitating Goosecross and was excited to find Game Farm Vineyard, a special place in Oakville that has provided grapes for the likes of Honig and Groth. The rocks that dominate the Rock Pit block bear a resemblance to vineyards in Chateauneuf-du-Pape that lack topsoil. The large rocks retain heat and make the vines stretch deep for water. Nancarrow likes the natural acidity, bright fruit, finesse and aromatics that come from this vineyard. He also draws grapes from the Trailside block where the red loam topsoil adds what he calls “flesh” to the cabernet sauvignon.

What makes C. Elizabeth unusual in Napa Valley is its reliance on American oak, a bold approach made after the couple fell in love with American-oak-inspired Penfold’s Bin 707. Although American oak is common in Spain and Australia, most winemakers find it too aggressive. Nancarrow, however, has found reliable and less aggressive oak in Pennsylvania and Missouri.

We tasted four vintages of the C. Elizabeth Game Farm Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and clearly there was an evolution from the showy and accessible 2014 to the firmer 2016. Much of it is due to being more selective with the American oak but the 2016 is also more textured and broader because of the introduction of grapes from the Trailside block.

These are powerful yet elegant cabernet sauvignons with a depth of flavor in a classy package. At this price, they aren’t for everyday drinking, however.

As to the price, Dave said, “We were not trying to fill a consumer need. We built (the brand) from our perspective. It’s the opposite of what you learn. We have passionate ambassadors – friends and family who build their own concentric ring of followers.”

The 2016 and 2017 cabernet sauvignons, made in small quantities, are sold direct to consumer via its website. The Ficelis are generously donating 50 percent of the 2017 vintage sold before March 15 to the fire relief fund in cooperation with the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

Valentine Day picks

Not everyone will be able to serve $150 wines for a homecooked Valentine’s Day dinner. There are alternatives.

Australia loves its quirky names. Loveblock wines are easy to find and leave an impression. The sauvignon blanc runs around $20 a bottle and the pinot noir cost about $35. D’Arenberg makes a delicious Lovegrass Shiraz for under $20 and we’ve always been a fan of Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love ($80).

You may want to have sparkling wine on hand to set the mood. Proseccos from Mionetto, Ruffino and La Marca sells for less than $12 a bottle. If you want to leave a better impression, think champagne. Nicolas Feuillatte, Ayala, Montaudon and Pommery can be found for less than $40.

If bubbles aren’t your thing – what's the matter with you? -- rosé is rose in a bottle. The splash of color and the chilled red fruit flavors can just as easily set the mood as sparkling wine. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie put their names on an excellent Miraval rosé from Provence before their marriage fell apart. Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City” makes Invivo rosé from southern France too. Serve one of these and stream a movie.

If you’re planning to use the occasion to break up, The Prisoner might be a good introduction to the conversation. Buy two bottles and call it a separation. What fun!

Maybe you want to splurge because you just won the Mega Lottery. Consider Cliff Lede Rock Block “Dancing Heart” Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($110). A rock music fan, Cliff Lede names his blend after two blocks of vineyards: Rush’s “Closer to the Heart” block and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” block in the Twin Peaks Vineyard. You know the background music to play.

Otherwise, here’s just some good red wines that won’t break the bank

  • Lost Eden Red Blend 2018 ($20). Made in the country of Georgia – arguably the birthplace of wine – this blend made by an 11th-generation winemaker and dominated by the saperavi grape. Both the flesh and the skin of this variety are red, thus making the wine dense and earthy with dark fruit flavors and a sort of wildness that is intriguing to the palate. Very unique.

  • Primus “The Blend” Apalta Colchagua Chile 2017 ($19). This is a delightful blend made of the five noble Bordeaux varieties plus carmenere. Although press materials describe cabernet sauvignon as “the basis” of this blend, this wine doesn’t feature the bell pepper notes that you sometimes find in Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Very smooth with plum and cherry flavors and scents this wine is a delight to drink.

  • Raeburn Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2019 ($25). Consumers may find $25 expensive, but in the pinot noir category it is inexpensive. Ripe red berry flavors with a hint of spice and vanilla.

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