September 13-19, 2006

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

Freemark Abbey

By Daedalus Howell

Sure it's got some arty associations--Keats, Chopin, a couple of the Brontës--but rest assured, tuberculosis is a drag. It's also one of the reasons entrepreneur Josephine Tychson moved her ailing husband to the dry climes of Napa Valley in 1881, though not the only reason. The consumption-injunction was curtain dressing for Tychson's enological ambitions, which, after a purchase of a 147-acre parcel of land, began to take shape, making her the first woman to own and operate a winery in the valley.

A century and a quarter later, her name has all but been scrubbed from the venture, the current name of which is a mash-up of Freeman, Marquand and a dude named Albert who apparently went by "Abbey." The three were SoCal businessmen who resuscitated the St. Helena winery in 1939 following its 20-year Prohibition hiatus. I suppose it's better that Albert's nickname was "Abbey" instead of, say, "Al," in which case the joint might be called "Freemark Alley," which sounds like a place to exchange hypodermic needles.

You may scoff at me worrying over this point, but St. Helena will have you know that word choice is important in this tony burg. After all, this is where terms like "price point" (Napanese for "how much?") and "Dude, where's my helicopter?" originated. I bet.

Freemark Abbey's price points are mostly in the mid-$20s, a deal, really, for the fine caliber of wine it produces. Among them, the 2005 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($24), the winery's first foray with the varietal, proved a smashing inaugural outing. This fine sipper is made for a day with a canoe, a parasol and some keen 78s cranked on the Victrola. The grass and melon notes would pair well with barbecued oysters and won't stain your seersucker jacket.

Likewise, the 2004 Napa Valley Viognier ($27) is the ailing sister in a Jane Austen novel--a smidge of clove and thistle honey--on the brink of either death or marriage, which is to say that it's wonderfully melodramatic and worthy of indulgence. Drink it in the bath paired with a leisurely breakfast of lemon pancakes. The 2003 Napa Valley Pinot Noir ($28) has the pleasant aroma of wet cedar, rather like crawling out of a hot tub at some woodsy spa retreat and groping for a towel, musty from one's excursion in the tub.

The big gun at Freemark Abbey, however, is the 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon-Bosche ($65)--pure kapow! in a bottle. Sourced from the fabled Bosche Vineyard seated on the Rutherford Bench, this wine has powerful dark berry notes and the dusty loam taste for which this region is known. It will make you want to be buried in a vineyard.

Freemark Abbey, 3022 St. Helena Hwy. N. (Highway 29 at Lodi Lane), St. Helena. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. $5 tasting fee includes logo glass. 800.963.9698.

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