by Linda Mensinga Carpe Diem Wine Bar in downtown Napa has grown a local following with an ever-evolving wine list and eclectic food menu. Wine director Steve Distler treats their guests to lesser-known discovery wines that are just as delicious and well made as the large estate bottles. NAPA, Ca.—“Napa Valley has a lot of small-scale wine producers. I love these because I can see and feel the heart and effort packed into their wines. For them it’s a dream. They put in the time and just won’t make crappy wine,” says Steve Distler, owner/wine director about the many discovery wines on the menu at Carpe Diem Wine Bar, “What I try to do is give them exposure." Most of the wines on his list of 95 bottles and 40 by-the-glass choices are boutique vineyards that cannot be found at the supermarket.
As might be expected the list is Napa heavy, but Distler, 32, embraces globalism with bottles from Germany, France, Slovenia, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. Vintages range from the budget-friendly $36 2009 John Anthony (Napa-Sauvignon Blanc) to the $800 2008 Bryant Family (Napa-Cabernet Sauvignon). “A good wine is about balance: it’s not overly acidic or overly tannic, and it has to finish smooth,” he explains, “Bryant Family is considered one of the cult wines of Napa. Their 1997 cab scored 100 points from Robert Parker Jr, and collectors have been buying them ever since." Distler mentions how a group of Swiss tourists quaffed three bottles of the stuff recently at Carpe Diem. He shared some wines on his list and what makes them special.
• NV Sean Thackery Pleiades – This wine is a northern California blend of Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Syrah, just to name a few. It is a non-vintage wine and has a following from wine geeks like myself. He is what some call a quirky producer, but he makes wines the way he likes. He pours over wine history books and gets inspiration from them; I was a history teacher so I can appreciate that. All of his wines are named after constellations.
• 2010 Matthiasson (White Wine) – Steve Matthiasson made this white wine blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Tocai Fruliano, which is completely different for Napa Valley. This wine puts me at ease because it is such an easy drinking wine with complexity. It shows a fantastic expression of what Ribolla and Tocai can do in California. He gets these varietals from the southern part of Napa, which is a cooler area. I've had this wine on the list since we've opened.
• 2003 Gravner 'Breg' Anfora – This is one the most interesting wines I've ever had, so I was excited to put this on the list. I first had this in 2006 at my former job in New York City called Italian Wine Merchant. It’s a blend of Ribolla Gialla, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon from Friuli, Italy. It is a white wine, but the color is copper due to longer skin maceration. This wine is aged in clay amphorae buried under the ground. Jasko Gravner has dedicated his life to making wines as he thinks they should be. His wines are not scored (at least I've never seen one), nor does he care for them to be. This is a wine that makes you think outside the box.
Distler, a New York City native, was a high school history teacher before following his dream to work in the wine industry for an Italian wine merchant in New York. He moved to California to learn more and became tasting room manager for Del Dotto estates, where he met current partners Scott and Stephanie Kendall. Chef Scott crafts the food and Stephanie takes care of the front, marketing, events, and parties.
Open just a year in downtown Napa, Carpe Diem already serves 80-85 dinners each evening. The wine and food have drawn in a strong following of local wine makers and sommeliers along with tourists. Another attraction is the restaurant’s interior. Sleekly styled with wood and tile accents, the wine bar has a hip urban atmosphere inside an original brick building from Napa’s past as a center for mining, agriculture, and timber.
Distler enjoys helping guests choose wines and create flights. “We have pre-set wine director’s choice. Or I’ll ask why style they like and suggest they try something new,” he said. Suggested wine pairings are given for Bigger Bites such as Spicy Calamari ($13) with 2009 Gimenez Riili (Argentian – Torrontes, $9 glass/$36 bottle); Quack ‘n’ Cheese ($12) with 2009 La Follette (Sonoma Coast-Pinot Noir, $12/46); or Ostrich Burger ($18) with 2009 Brown Estate (Napa-Zinfandel, $13/52).
The wine director commented on why grapes thrive in the Mediterrean climate in Napa Valley, “Weather-wise, you can’t beat it. Grapes do well here with the warm days and cool nights." Summer day time temperatures average in the 80s and evenings cool to the 50s. “We copied the European styles, but they get challenging years with rain in summer,” Distler says. Ideally, a rainy wet winter and a dry summer and fall allow grapes to flourish without the danger of mold which; in this, Napa Valley is ideal.
The wine bar has bottles with cork and screw tops. “I've had many wines with the screw cap and to be honest, I was not a fan of them. But my opinion had changed, and I am now a fan of both cork and screw top. Obviously, the romanticism of opening a bottle of wine is not there with a screw cap, but I still think screw caps are great. However, I am not a fan of the synthetic corks. They are difficult to open at times and, being in a wine bar, you don't want to stand there spending so much time trying to open a bottle of wine and can't due to the synthetic cork,” Distler comments.
Opened since June 2010, the wine director loves being a business owner. “Great food with great wine is hard to beat.” Carpe Diem Wine Bar 1001 2nd St. Napa, CA 94550