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Is Kelli White the Walking Encyclopedia of Napa Valley Wine?

Posted May 27, 2016

Stacy Brody

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Short answer: yes

Kelli was a New York City somm when the market took a nosedive. Luxury businesses like fancy-schmancy restaurants were hit as hard as their clientele … which led Kelli and her husband to think about what they would like to do next.

They wanted to stay in the wine business, but in what role?

 

From restaurant floor to cellar door.

Maybe Kelli fell under the same spell as the Napa Valley pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps she heard the call back to the land. Maybe she was drawn by the intrigue of winemaking, the intersection of science and romance.  

She looked all around the old world for places to make wine.

Then, an offer from Napa came along.

She hadn't thought of California. To White, California seemed “easy.” Heck, the labels are written in English and even include the name of the grape! I admit I suffered from the same misconception. We “wine geeks” sometimes take California for granted.

White would soon change her tune.

She moved to Napa and took the job. In this new position, White was charged with putting together the ultimate Napa Valley wine list. She knew all about the "old world," the key wine regions and producers, the top-notch names and vintages, but Napa was - pun alert - a whole new world!

Immediately, she sought out the guide to Napa wines. To her surprise, she found none! The book did not exist.

 

Until 2015, when Kelli herself released the book on Napa wines. Napa Valley Then and Now, a 1200 page, 14 lb labor of love. It took White four a half years of tasting wines, talking to the old generation, compiling information and writing to get this book out to California wine lovers.

In addition to a brief history and overview of Napa, which she concludes is an unlikely success story, she profiles hundreds of wineries.

We were thrilled to have Kelli in for a signing and seminar on Saturday, May 22. In her honor, we sampled four of her favorite Napa wines:

2014 Forman Chardonnay

2012 Smith Madrone Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain

2013 Gandona Encosta Cabernet Sauvignon

2012 Ad Vivum Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

 

Once the crowds cleared, I took a few minutes to get to know Kelli a little better.

 

First, I asked for some food and wine pairings, hearkening back to her somm skills:

Q: What is your favorite comfort food and wine pairing?

Kelli: Roast chicken and a great white Burgundy. When you've been saving a really special bottle of wine, it is often best to pair it with really simple food. I'm a huge fan of white Burgundy and love nothing more than roasting a chicken and some root vegetables to serve along with it. The food does not compete and allows the wine to really show off!

 

Q: We are gearing up for the summer season, what is your favorite barbecue food and wine pairing?

Kelli: I love a well-made Petite Sirah with BBQ. Especially one with some age on it! It's not necessarily easy to find, but older vintage Petite Sirah can be incredible. The wine ages very slowly and keeps its dark fruity core long after the yummy secondary characteristics (earth, leather, mushroom) start to emerge.

 

Q: How about your "guilty pleasure" food and wine pairing?

Kelli: Popcorn and champagne. I probably indulge in this at least once a week!

 

I always have to ask folks their “wine story.” Was wine something your parents loved? Did you take a class? Maybe you tried wine at a family member’s wedding (maybe before you were of age)?

 

Q: When and why did you start in wine? Was it a passion or something you fell into, i.e. a restaurant job to pay college bills, that became a passion?

Kelli: I was not raised with wine and stumbled into it quite by accident. I was looking for a summer job after my junior year of college and actually applied in a framery in Beacon Hill (my father was a house-builder and I had some experience with tools). They didn't have enough hours for me, so they suggested I apply across the street at the wine store. I didn't drink at all but they hired me anyway, and the owner sent me home with a bunch of books and a few bottles. I very quickly realized that the study of wine combined a lot of my interests-- science, history, aesthetics, travel, language-- and once I found a had a good palate and memory for it, I was committed.

 

At our Sunday seminar, we learned that in the 1880s, in the post-Gold Rush heyday, Riesling and Zinfandel were the top varieties in the Napa. Then, the temperance movement swept the nation.

In the second heydey of the 1960s, the United States was “suffering” from Francophilia, so varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet were obvious choices for a growing wine region. Cabernet is a great match for Napa’s terroir and became the dominant grape in 1991, overtaking Chardonnay.

 

Q: Cabernet is doing well in Napa. Is there a variety that Napa could do/is doing well whose potential has yet to be unlocked?

Kelli: I'm a big fan of Charbono from Napa Valley. This grape was once hugely important to the region-- Inglenook made quite a famous one for decades-- but now there is less than a hundred acres of it in the whole state, and only a handful of those acres are in Napa Valley. It's genetically the same grape as Bonarda in Argentina. I like it in Napa because the flavors are very bright, lifted, and punchy, which serves as a counterpoint to the heavier, more serious Cabernet Sauvignons. The wines tend to have a lot of personality and fruit, but are never heavy. The variety is notoriously slow to ripen, and thereby slow to accumulate sugar. As such it gets fully ripe and full of flavor without getting too boozy.

 

And last, but not least, a somewhat obvious question for someone who just wrote the encyclopedia of Napa Valley wine.

 

Q: What was the most influential wine book in your career?

Kelli: Clive Coates Cote d'Or was by far the most influential book of my career. When I was 25 years old I worked a harvest in Burgundy; it was my first time to the region and I wanted to absorb as much as possible. I read the book cover to cover before going and also brought it with me-- and it is quite a sizable book! I stayed in Burgundy for a month, and every night I would re-read the sections on the places I had been that day, or the vineyard whose fruit I had been working on. I still have that copy-- it's dog-eared and the bindings long broken, but it's of tremendous sentimental value to me.

 

We are so thankful to Kelli for visiting us on the east coast. Her home is still in Napa, where she writes full-time for Vinous Media. Her fiance Scott now makes the wines....I hope Kelli writes rave reviews for his wines!

 

Don’t miss any of our upcoming events here at the Wine Library: https://winelibrary.com/events

Any questions about programming can be directed to Stacy at sbrody@winelibrary.com

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