Catherine Seda Bugue describes her love-hate relationship in this entry in our competition to establish the best account of an independent wine retailer and the best independent wine retailer in the world (the latter may have nothing to do with the former).
'I'm looking for a Ribolla Gialla,' I said, inwardly pleading that the Napa retailer's face would lighten up, expressing pleasure at the request.
With the following five word reply: 'We have one from Collio,' I knew that everything would be okay with my move from New York City to Napa.
I was in Napa Valley, with some of the world's best wines at my fingertips, but I needed to know that I could taste the world.
The wine shop from which I carried my coveted bottle of Collio some 12 years ago is Napa's Back Room Wines, now located on First Street, just off the corner of Main. Go any further east and you are crossing the short bridge to the Oxbow Market, another Napa treasure, filled with fine dining for serious foodies and boutique vendors offering anything from exotic spices to vintage wine accoutrements.
What I would soon learn was that Back Room Wines is a favorite of Napa's winemakers and other serious enthusiasts. Every week owner Dan Dawson hosts a tasting - some blind - and locals come not just from within the city limits but from St Helena, a good 25-30 minutes north. For the small fee of $15 participants taste a series of themed wines among a packed room of wine lovers, all talking, sharing comments, laughing, and perhaps buying the special selections being featured. Dan Dawson's choices were, and always are, thoughtful and admired.
Taste around France, and Chardonnay from Super Crisp to Super Rich are two of the upcoming tastings. A favorite past event of mine is the class and tasting on sherries from Emilio Lustau. I came home with an East India Solera for only $27, a mocha-toffee, ripe fruit bottle of pure pleasure. And that was a pricier choice. The Manzanilla and Amontillados were under $20 each. (Why don't we drink more sherry?)
The shop has a chic appearance, with a layout that is easy to understand. Some of Napa's ultra premium wines are there, as they should be, but it is the lesser-known or harder-to-find selections that make this shop a drug of sorts for people like me, wine people who need a place to go for a good bottle; a place that you can run into before a dinner party and know you will come out with just the perfect thing.
Want a sparkler? A grower champagne and local bubbles will be amongst the selections, but you may find a Domaine Philippe Collin Crémant de Limoux for $13, and a Graham Beck brut rosé from South Africa for $17, among other choices.
In the mood for Italian whites? Back Room Wines could have a Soave, Trebbiano di Romagna, and a Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Going French may provide buying choices between a white Corbières, Entre-Deux-Mers, and basic, yet deliciously chosen, Bourgogne Blanc in addition to more celebrated AOCs and their producers.
That is not to say the shop is large, with an extensive selection. What makes Back Room Wines so special is that you know Dan has tasted each and every wine, and has given it his approval. Dan's palate is impeccable, finding interesting and delicious wines of balance from Napa Valley and around the world. I always buy more than planned when I go in there.
I once looked Dan in the eyes, after purchasing too many French and Italian whites, and flatly stated, 'I don't like you.' I quickly added, 'Your palate is too good; I love the wines you choose.'
I guess what comes around goes around. I have a friend who tells me she hates me now. I had her explore wines beyond jug Gallo, introducing her to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Smith-Madrone and Corison. She and her wallet have never forgiven me.
Back Room Wines
1000 Main Street