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Sixty restaurant, retail and winery staff took to the glass in the second annual Napa Valley Rocks — Battle of the Palates at V Marketplace in Yountville May 18. The Napa Valley Vintners developed the program for front-line wine salespeople to help these key wine ambassadors speak more confidently about Napa Valley and its wines, and to learn more about the appellation and the county. The seminar was followed by a blind tasting.

Two contenders tied for first place in the tasting challenge: Tim Costner, wine educator at Nickel & Nickel, and Annette Summersett, hospitality team member at O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery. Third place was awarded to Thys-Jan Tepper, senior wine educator at Blackbird Vineyards/Ma(i)sonry.

Costner received a scholarship for the Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Wine Educator programs, donated by Trinchero Napa Valley ($1,200 value), and Summersett took home a scholarship for the Napa Valley Wine Intensive course at The Culinary Institute of America   ($750 value). Tepper received two passes to the June 5 Taste Napa Valley marketplace at Auction Napa Valley ($500 value).

The course was led by NVV members Michael Honig, president of Honig Vineyard and Winery; Matt Ashby, director of viticulture for Icon Estates; and Chris Blanchard, education director for Chappellet Winery and Vineyard.

The Napa Valley Rocks presentation was based on a series of science reports by researchers to provide an understanding of the attributes of the Napa Valley appellation, including geologic formation, soil structure, climate and history of the region.

Dozens of Napa Valley winery hospitality staff were joined by wait and retail staff from Auberge du Soleil, Bardessono, Bistro Don Giovanni, Bottega, Bouchon, Bounty Hunter, Cole’s Chop House, Farm, Martini House, Press, Silverado Brewing Company, The French Laundry and Tra Vigne.

Silver Oak Cellars’ Oakville estate will be the setting for a June 11 benefit concert featuring the Taj Mahal Trio. Proceeds will benefit the Rex Foundation, a grant-making foundation established in 1983 by the Grateful Dead.

“The Rex Foundation supports community-based, nonprofit organizations that might otherwise be overlooked by mainstream fundraisers,” said Tim Duncan, son of Silver Oak founder Ray Duncan.

Taj Mahal, a composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, is  touring with the Taj Mahal Trio, with Taj on guitar, piano and banjo, Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums. The three musicians have played together on and off for more than 30 years.

The event begins at  6:30 p.m. with a pre-concert reception featuring wines from Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars. Guests will be served a gourmet picnic on the lawn during the performance. Guests holding VIP Platinum tickets will also enjoy a private after-show party.

 Tickets are $350 for VIP platinum; $200 for the silver package. Tickets are available through www.Ticketmaster.com

Benessere Vineyards has released its 2008 Pinot Grigio and Sorridente, its 2006 estate red.  

The pinot grigio is sourced from two vineyards on the Napa side of Carneros. Winemaker Chris Dearden describes it as having a “beautiful jasmine, honeysuckle nose with grapefruit zest and mineral notes” that will develop additional characteristics of pineapple and apricot. Pinot grigio is growing in popularity in the U.S. because of its versatility in pairing with food, and Deardon suggests this wine will go well with a range of foods, from fresh brie and pecorino cheeses and sourdough bread to crab cakes, halibut, chicken breast sandwiches and tuna niçoise salad.

“Sorridente” means ‘smile’ in Italian and the winemaker notes “it is our hope that this delicious blend of merlot and aglianico will make your day a little lighter and cause you to smile. The merlot (51 percent) comes from the Benessere vineyards on the valley floor in north St. Helena. The aglianico (49 percent) comes from neighbor Bill Collins’ vineyards. The Italian varietal, originally from the Campania region near Naples “adds nerve to the elegant and rich merlot,” according to Deardon, who suggests pairing it with lamb, veal shank and aged, hard cheeses “at joyous occasions both grand and humble.”

Benessere Vineyards is at 1010 Big Tree Road, St. Helena for more information, call 963-5853 or visit www.benesserevineyards.com.

Casa Nuestra Winery & Vineyards has released two special- interest wines, available only at the winery: 2008 Riesling, Old Vines, St. Helena Estate and the 2008 Rosado, a dry rosé.    

In 1989, 1,700 tons of white riesling grapes were harvested in the Napa Valley. In 2008, that number has dwindled to 108 and four of those tons are from the estate of Casa Nuestra Winery & Vineyards in St. Helena.

“The experts say this is cabernet country, but our hillside riesling has been producing fruit of outstanding quality since 1966,” says Stephanie Zacharia, from the winery staff. “Our Napa Valley riesling has even been known to convert a few die-hard, red wine drinkers to an occasional glass of white (wine).” 

This off-dry style is great for pairing with a variety of foods from spicy Asian, Indian and Cajun cuisine. In 2008, 234 cases were produced.

Casa Nuestra’s Rosado was initially produced largely from cabernet franc grapes. For the 2008, their fourth production, they blended in petite sirah, syrah, petite verdot and cabernet sauvignon, all grown in Mendocino County. Suggested pairings are grilled salmon, barbecued ribs or even a spicy burrito. Only 173 cases were produced.

 Casa Nuestra Winery, at 3451 Silverado Trail North in St. Helena, welcomes visitors Monday through Saturday by appointment for tasting, tours and barrel sampling. Picnickers and well-behaved canines are welcome. For more information, call (866) 844-9463 or visit www.CasaNuestra.com

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