Port is a style of fortified wine traditionally associated with the Douro Valley around the city of Oporto in Northern Portugal. Prager is the only Napa winery that specializes in this style of wine. Unlike other wine terms that indicate origination, such as Champagne, it is legal in the US to use Port to describe wines made outside of Portugal.
Fortified wines are made by adding a neutral grain spirit, sometimes called brandy, but generally of higher alcohol content than commercial brandy. The addition of this “brandy” ends the fermentation by killing the yeast; this results in a wine that is sweeter than table wine because sugar remains unconverted to alcohol. Prager aims to end fermentation with the wine in the seven to eight percent range. The addition of the spirit means that the end-product has a higher alcohol content than regular wine; for example, the Ports made by Prager are in the 19% to 20.5% range.
Being Napa’s sole Port focused winery would make a visit to Prager interesting if that was their only unique selling point, but the tasting room is very different from the sleek, modern spaces that dominate Highway 29. The building looks to date back to the winery opening in 1979. The interior walls are covered with paper money stapled to the wall. Most of the notes are US Dollars, but there is a 100 trillion bill from Zimbabwe; which is worth less than those dollar bills. There is also a window that has not been cleaned since the mid-eighties; now covered in cobwebs it is described as their Windows based website.
California Girl comments: Oooooh Money! I wonder how many people have had too much to drink and have tried to count it all? Not that I would have done such a thing or anything.. You know, wondering for a friend?
The winery is family-run, now in its second generation. Everyone working at the winery is a family member, by blood or marriage; a sharp contrast to many of the corporate vineyards on Highway 29. Although the winery is not visible from the road, a small sign points down a gravel track to the small building tucked away from the busy traffic of people on their way to the more obvious Napa destinations.
The first port that we tried was the 2011 Vintage Port, a blend of Petit Sirah and Tinta Roriz. This latter grape is a traditional Portuguese grape, better known by its Spanish name: Tempranillo. The nose smelled overwhelmingly of wood. The mouthfeel was an intriguing balance of sweetness and acidity; with vanilla at the fore, followed by a finish of fruit and cola. The nose had promised little, but the evolving flavour and overall complexity was impressive. This wine sells for $55 a bottle.
The best wine was the 2012 Royal Escort Port ($72). This is made from 100% Petite Sirah. Again the nose was dominated by wood, but this time there were hints of fruit. This was sweeter than the previous wine, but not overwhelmingly so. The taste was of plum and a rich lingering embrace of vanilla.
Our third wine was Their 2008 Blonde Tawny Port. This was priced at $60 for a 500ml bottle. This was a semi-sweet white port in style; made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. It had a vibrant golden hue, with aromas of caramel, toasted wood, and hazelnut. There was a complex balance between the sweetness, a rich nuttiness, and a defiant backbone of spice. This was a wine that our host suggested should be drunk with oysters and would, I think, pair well with a clam chowder.
The last of the ports was the Noble Companion which sells for $80. Made of a blend of Petit Sirah and Merlot, this 2005 vintage wine spent ten and a half years in barrels. Unsurprisingly, the nose is dominated by the aromas of oak wood, but it is enhanced by a distinct set of plan notes. This wine had a silky smooth feel with a long fruit filled finish.
Prager makes about 3,600 cases of wine a year. They lease five acres of Petite Syrah and buy grapes to supplement that acreage.
The tasting cost $20. Whilst we were there, several other groups of people entered. Each group had at least person who was returning; often after several years away. The friendly servers and the unique wines explain the appeal for returning visitors. If you have tried Port-style wines from other California wineries and found them too sweet; I suggest you give Prager a try. Their wines emphasize complexity and balance over sweetness and are closer in style to Port from Portugal than any US ones I have tried before.
California Girl comments: I am sorry to have missed such an interesting experience. We will have to go back together at a later date. I have never been someone who enjoyed port, but with the blog I am starting to get a taste for it – as long as its good!