When I met Judd Finkelstein at Spencer’s for lunch, our hostess zeroed in on his instrument case. It’s too big for a violin and too small for a guitar; not quite the right shape for a banjo and far too large for a mandolin. “Is that a ukulele?” she asked. Indeed, it was. It turns out that our friendly hostess had a keen interest in ukuleles. She asked— nay, demanded—that Finkelstein play a tune before we left. Talk about singing for your supper—well, lunch. Of course, Judd Finkelstein is always more than happy to oblige. Hawaii is in his blood, and he delights in all things ukulele. But more about that later.
First, a bit of background: Judd Finkelstein is the Judd in Judd’s Hill Winery, founded by his parents—Art and Bunnie Finkelstein—who also created Whitehall Lane Winery in the 1970s. It’s on this actual hill in Napa Valley—Judd’s Hill—that the Finkelsteins have devoted themselves in recent years to producing premium hand-crafted wines from small lots. Today, Judd’s Hill Winery makes Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Merlot and some of the tastiest Cabernet in America.
Despite weighing in at what couldn’t be more than 140 pounds, Judd said, “I like to eat—a lot!” So we both settled on Spencer’s juicy 8-ounce ribeye. As we tucked into our lunches, I confessed to Judd that I’m a fan of Judd’s Enormous Wine Show, a (more or less) weekly video series at JuddsHill.com.
“Oh, you liked it?” said Judd with a slight blush. How could I not like the notion of gathering a bunch of toddlers around a boardroom table and brainstorming about wine-marketing strategies for untapped markets (such as “little bottles for little people”)? The little people—toddlers—are what Judd and his savvy sales staff has dubbed “micro millennials.”
It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Getting down with the wines, I noted a very restrained use of oak in Judd Hill’s red wines.
“I mean that as a compliment,” I added. “Oh, I take it as a compliment,” said Judd. He believes that great fruit should be the star of a great bottle of wine, not oak. And a restrained use of oak (from both neutral and used French barrels) results in wines with luscious fruit, which are also wildly food-friendly. No oak and smoke to clutter the palate.
Regarding the exceptionally generous fruit in Judd’s Hill wines, a wine geek colleague of mine says, “It’s like a laser right down the center of the tongue—no flabbiness or harsh tannins to make you pucker.” He tends to talk like that. But he’s right. Judd’s Hill Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($27 here/$40 nationally) is truly beautiful—gorgeous fruit, but not an over-the-top fruit-bomb wine either. And if you like that wine, you’ll love Judd’s Hill Estate 2002 ($39 here/$75 at the winery), which has just arrived in Utah. It’s a spot-on blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc: what would happen (as Mr. Wine Geek suggests) if a perfect marriage of French Bordeaux and Napa-style Cabernet were to occur.
When Judd Finkelstein isn’t making wine or doing magic tricks, you’ll find him fronting the ukulele-laden Maikai Gents, performing classic Hawaiian tunes in the style called hapa haole. At Spencer’s, our hostess and guests got a spontaneous private performance by Judd before he was whisked off to the next wine dinner. It’s too much fun. So undoubtedly, the Utah Legislature will soon ponder a bill banning ukuleles from public places.