We have made the drive from the rental car building at SFO to Napa many times in the past, but this time there was a totally different feeling as we approached the outskirts of Napa. Driving over the Napa River Bridge on Highway 12 I had thoughts of both excitement but also of apprehension about what we were going to see as a result of the devastating fires last fall. This blog in no way diminishes the utter catastrophe that swept thru the area in October and our hearts go out to those impacted. However, there seems to be some confusion about the extent of the damage and the impact it has made on the wine industry. I hope to clear up some of the misconceptions with this blog.
Before I delve into our most recent experiences, let me talk about some physical properties of Napa and Sonoma. Both valleys run roughly north to south, and are connected on the southern end to San Pablo Bay. That connection to the bay brings in cooling winds which make for an almost perfect climate for growing grapes with warm days and cool nights. Within the 2 counties there are multiple areas of distinctive climates, soil types and elevations that have been designated as American Viticulture Areas (AVA’s). There are 17 AVA’s in Sonoma and 16 AVA’s in Napa. At this time of year (January), the vines have been pruned back in preparation for the next vintage and look stark against the bright green backdrop of the cover crops planted in between the rows of grapes. The green splotches punctuate the landscape in virtually every direction, and naturally deposit nutrients and nitrogen to the soils.
We made our last trip to the area in September 2017, eight days sandwiched by a few weeks between Hurricane Harvey (we live in Houston) and the horrendous fires in wine country in early October. We were truly amazed by the kindheartedness of virtually everyone we came in contact with at that time after they discovered we were from Houston. It became apparent to us that the whole nation watched Hurricane Harvey just as we all did with the fires in Napa and Sonoma. Watching the fires left me feeling helpless; initially, all I could do was reach out to many of my friends in the wine industry and offer them my prayers. My wife and I already had a bond with the region since we visit it frequently, but the fires left us with a desire to try to do something else to help. We found several opportunities to make donations to relief funds that were being matched, and we vowed to return as soon as we possibly could.
It also became painfully apparent to me that because of the television coverage across the nation (and the world) the perception was the Napa and Sonoma wine industry had been decimated. Well, I can tell you that assumption is totally incorrect. The wineries, hotels, restaurants, and shops are still open and eagerly awaiting visitors. The most important thing anyone can do to assist in the full recovery of one of the most spectacular wine regions of the world is to visit them.
Lisa and set out to do just that. For starters, we booked a room in the new Archer Hotel in downtown Napa. We have stayed in downtown Napa previously in several different places and anxiously looked forward to seeing the new digs on 1st Street. We were not disappointed with our decision to stay there. It is an absolutely beautiful hotel that looks like it has been on 1st Street for many years but also offers some unique amenities not available anywhere else in the area. They have a gorgeous lobby, vibrant bar as well as a wonderful restaurant, Charlie Palmer Steakhouse. While we were disappointed that the rooftop bar, spa, and sitting area with fire pits was not completed at the time of our stay, when completed in the Spring it will provide an unobstructed view in all directions. I am certain it will be one of the most popular places for an evening glass of wine in the area.
Our visit in paradise included visits to wineries (some of which we had visited before but for the most part wineries we had not visited previously) as well as nice dinners at some of the many great restaurants in Napa and Sonoma. On a side note, I definitely recommend making reservations for wine tastings and restaurants prior to arriving, especially if you want to tour the winery or participate in seated tastings paired with food. I booked one morning and one afternoon tasting for each of the 5 full days and one afternoon tasting for the first day we arrived. I find planning ahead allows me to tailor our visits with wine varietals, activities and styles we enjoy or want to get to know better. You can always add visits once you are in the area and many wineries allow you to drop in and taste their wines without an appointment.
Our first visit was to Joseph Phelps Vineyards located just east of St. Helena and the Silverado Trail. Joseph Phelps Vineyards is an iconic Napa winery that Lisa and I had never visited. The visit was called the “Insignia Blending Experience” and we were paired up with 3 other couples we did not know. Insignia is the flagship Bordeaux blend of the winery, and in the visit we were allowed to come up with our own blend of the varietals they typically use in making Insignia. We then did a blind judging of each team’s blend using some very specific criteria. It was a great way to get our trip started and we met some great people in the process. We also picked up a bottle of the 2013 Insignia to take to dinner that night at Cole’s Chop House in Napa. We have dined there many times and always find the food and service to be top notch. We were not disappointed and the wine paired very nicely with our steaks.
Day two started with breakfast at The Grill At Meadowood, a cozy resort located east of St. Helena. Our first tasting was at Amizetta, a small family owned winery located at the southern base of Howell Mountain overlooking Lake Hennessey from the north. The view from their outdoor tasting area is without a doubt one of the most spectacular views of any winery in Napa. And even better, the wines they make are outstanding. Spencer Clark, Sr. and his wife, Amizetta, founded the winery in the late 70’s. Spencer bought 40 acres high above Lake Hennessey and built terraced vineyards where he planted cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot. They have 3 sons who run the winery with one son serving as the general manager, another as the wine maker and the other as the vineyard manager. Their wines are beautiful and affordable, a nice combination and the overall tasting experience is our favorite every time we visit. By the way, you will need a map to get there as there is limited cell service or reliable GPS in the area but it is definitely worth the drive.
The second tasting of the day was at Chappellet, a family owned winery located on Pritchard Hill, which also overlooks Lake Hennessy but from the south side. Chappellet was built in the late 1960’s by Donn and Molly Chappellet, and was only the second new winery to be built after Prohibition. He was one of the first people to recognize the importance of mountain top vineyards. He pioneered the area called Pritchard Hill and now there are a number of very high-end wineries nearby. Chappellet, however, has continued to hold the line on the price of their wines, especially relative to some of their high-end neighbors. A beautiful winery with great wines and views of the surrounding area and the lake.
We had 2 scheduled tastings on day 3. The first was at Conn Creek Winery, again located off Silverado Trail on the east side of the valley in the Rutherford AVA. We did a blending exercise where we were able to come up with our own formula to make a Bordeaux style blend based predominately on cabernet sauvignon from several vineyards and AVA’s with smaller portions of cabernet franc, petite verdot, merlot and malbec. Once we determined our favorite blend, we were able to actually make a bottle of that wine which we shipped home. I am sure in several months there will be a blind tasting at our house as Lisa and I break out our personal wines to see who was the best winemaker. I am sure mine will be deemed to be the best! Lisa doesn’t agree with my prediction.
Conn Creek Winery is located almost directly across the street from another winery that we have fallen in love with called Dakota Shy. While we did not have a formal tasting, we stopped by to say hello to our friend Todd Newman, one of the founders of Dakota Shy. They are making some outstanding cabernet sauvignon based wines and just opened their own wine making facility last fall. Dakota Shy wines are getting rave reviews and are some of my favorites.
Our next tasting on day 3 was at the far southern end of the Stags Leap District off the Silverado Trail at Reynolds Family Winery. Over the years we have become good friends with Steve and Suzie Reynolds. He came to Napa in the mid 1990’s after previously being a dentist. They have built a very nice winery with excellent wines that are reasonably priced. Steve has also gained a reputation in the area as a guy that makes things happen and provides his expertise in wine-making as a consultant for a number of other wineries.
Day 4 saw us starting our day with a Sommelier Tasting at Miner Family Winery located east of Oakville in the heart of the Napa Valley. We enjoyed one of the best tastings I can remember with Pete, the tasting room manager. We enjoyed a number of outstanding red wines including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as their flagship wine, Oracle, a Bordeaux blend that is outstanding. What makes them unique in my opinion is they also make some outstanding single vineyard Pinot Noirs with grapes sourced from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterrey County. They also make excellent white wines, including a Viognier which is out of this world. The winery and tasting room are situated just off the Silverado Trail at the base of a steep hill, which affords you an incredible view across the valley floor and the mountains to the west.
Our second tasting on Day 4 was at B Cellars, located right in the heart of the Oakville district of Napa (long considered one of the absolute best places in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes). The winery was built just a few years ago and is gracefully spectacular. Inside the tasting room, a large chef’s kitchen is surrounded by comfortable sitting areas. The wines are masterfully paired with small bites artistically prepared in front of you. The winery caves are extensive and beautiful. We really enjoyed one of their proprietary blends called Blend 26 which is made of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 12% Petite Verdot. B Cellars makes a number of vineyard specific cabernet sauvignon’s from a number of the world class Beckstoffer vineyards such as Georges III and To Kalon. We took a bottle of the blend with us for our dinner that night at the new Charlie Palmer Steakhouse located inside of the Archer Hotel where we stayed. It was a tremendous end to a great day of wine tasting.
Day 5 found us doing tastings high up on Atlas Peak as well as in Calistoga. Our day started at Antica, a winery owned by the Antinori wine family from Italy. The winery is located on Atlas Peak at the end of Soda Canyon Road. The drive to the winery gave us our first up close visual signs of the October fires. The first fire started on Atlas Peak on the evening of October 8. The source of the fire is still being investigated but it has been suggested that strong winds (as high as 92 mph) blew power lines down that created sparks. What ensued was what I call a fire tornado. It did not burn everything but rather jumped erratically, burning several structures or sections of trees and then skipping over others. The good news is Atlas Peak is not heavily inhabited. It is largely rugged rural land with occasional vineyards. By the way, it has been suggested the vineyards served as firebreaks which slowed down and in some cases stopped the fire.
Our visit to Antica was very reminiscent of our visits to Tuscany in Italy. The winery main building sits high atop a hill that overlooks a sea of vineyards. Making it seem even larger is the fact the famous Stagecoach vineyard is located adjacent to it. Kim conducted our tasting at Antica which included a charcuterie board. We tasted a number of their beautifully crafted wines including a Sangiovese which is not a typical varietal you see in Napa. I was very impressed with each of the wines we tasted and also with the price point of their wines. An extreme value for your money as well as a spectacular setting. It does not get much better in my opinion.
That afternoon, we made our way up the valley to Amici, located just north of Calistoga. This winery is a unique little gem that we had never visited but we had tasted their wines back in Houston. They are predominately a cabernet winery with grapes coming from some of the well-regarded vineyards in Napa such as To Kalon in Oakville. However, they too make some really good Pinot Noirs with grapes sourced from the Russian River Valley AVA in Sonoma. We had a great visit at this very small but high quality winery. Again, I strongly recommend it.
The next morning we drove to Sonoma for the day. We again saw evidence of the fires that breached the highway in Carneros. Again, the damage we saw was primarily to trees and underbrush. An old abandoned dairy did burn but I don’t think it had been in operation for quite some time. We started out with breakfast at Fremont Diner, which is located on the Sonoma highway just south of the city of Sonoma. It is a small diner with a huge following that Guy Fiere would be proud of. Don’t plan on counting calories if you go there because their menu is loaded with lots of comfort foods and they are all delicious!
Our first visit of the morning was to the historic Buena Vista Winery, which opened in 1857. It is located in the city of Sonoma. It is the oldest winery in California and a historic landmark as well. It sits at the base of a fairly steep hill that is blanketed with tall trees. Buena Vista was fortunate to have survived the fires as the fire travelled down that steep hill all the way to the back of the winery but did not cause any damage to their facility. We tasted a wide variety of their wines and really enjoyed the broad lineup of wines that make. Also, the tasting room area is extremely interesting with a very rustic feel. It was definitely worth the visit in my opinion.
We then drove a few blocks to the town square in Sonoma. We visited a few of the shops located around the square and then enjoyed lunch at the El Dorado Café. Our next tasting was at Walt, located about 100 yards north of town square. We have visited Walt on multiple occasions in the past. The winery is owned by Kathryn and Craig Hall. They are also owners of a large winery in St. Helena called Hall Wines which is also one of our favorites. Walt is focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They produce wines using grapes they source from some of the best vineyards they can find. Their Chardonnays are fantastic, but we really love their Pinot Noirs. They source grapes from Oregon to Santa Barbara County in California. We were able to taste a number of single vineyard Pinots including one from the Shea Vineyard in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the La Brisa Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterrey county, and the Clos Pepe Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara county. All three wines were extremely tasty but distinctly different. We picked up a botte of the Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir for dinner that night at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville – another favorite for us. (If you visit you MUST try the Crème de Tomate en Croute (Tomato soup in puff pastry) and the Boeuf Bourguignon!!) Again, a wonderful way to spend an afternoon tasting great Pinot Noirs.
Our final visit was a “drive by” tasting at a new winery called Ashes & Diamonds, located just north of the city of Napa. The winery building and tasting room are unique in their architecture, which I might describe as “modern industrial”. The tasting room looks like someone’s den from the late 1960’s with multi-color chairs, tables and walls. The winery is owned by Kashy Khaledi, the son of Darioush Khaledi, (owner of Darioush Vineyards). The apple did not fall from the tree in terms of the styles and quality of the wines offered at A & D, as they call it. Their wines are bold and fruit forward with lots of structure.
The bottom line after being in Napa and Sonoma for the better part of a week is that, while there are clear signs of the fires, the damage is largely in sparsely populated areas, except for Santa Rosa. Again, our hearts go out to those impacted and we pray for a speedy and full recovery to everyone. The wineries, restaurants, hotels and shops are open for business. You should see for yourself!