Lisa and I recently set out (again) for our favorite destination with our youngest son Zach and his wife Bekah. You see, Bekah teaches first grade, and it is her spring break. So, why not do a Wine Break instead? Once again, Lisa insisted we visit several wineries we have not been to before, so we had 5 days of tastings set up that included a few of our favorites but for the most part many wineries new to us. Hopefully these words will let you walk in our shoes for a few minutes and enjoy the time we had in wine country.
We arrived in Napa mid-afternoon. While we had no tastings set up for that afternoon, we decided to do a drive by tasting at the JCB Tasting Salon in Yountville. We have enjoyed JCB sparking rose’ before and decided that would be a nice way to kick off our week. What we did not expect was the over the top eclectic décor of their tasting room. While there we tried a number of other JCB wines including a couple of very elegant cabernets and cabernet blends, some incredibly good white wines and a really nice pinot noir that was a blend of grapes from Burgundy and the Russian River. Jean-Charles Boisset has gained a reputation of being eccentric but he also has been able to assemble a stable of 24 wineries in France, Canada and the USA, including DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Buena Vista in Sonoma, and Raymond Vineyards in Napa. His flair is reflected in each of the tasting rooms of the wineries but at the end of the day they are making pretty good wines. Not a bad start to our visit.
On this trip we stayed at a condo in the Silverado Country Club community. Our accommodations were very comfortable and the location is very convenient to the Silverado Trail, the city of Napa as well as Sonoma. We enjoyed a casual dinner at Basalt in downtown Napa where we feasted on a number of wonderful entrees and some special appetizers. We especially liked the Moroccan Carrots as an appetizer, the Lobster Rissotto and the Braised Short Ribs. It was our first time to eat at Basalt and we will be back.
When I plan our trips I attempt to schedule visits that are reasonably close to each other. For our first day, I picked 3 wineries located in Coombsville, the 16th AVA in the Napa Valley. Coombsville is located due east of downtown Napa and spans from the Napa River on the west to the Vaca Mountains on the east with elevations ranging from around sea level to almost 2,000 feet.
First up was Italics, a winery we have visited on multiple occasions in the past. The winery was purchased by Mike Martin, a produce grower from Texas with a huge love of the wine business. Steve Reynolds is his partner and consulting wine maker. They are making some fantastic wines at Italics and the caves they built are beautiful. The caves are located on a bluff overlooking vineyards that unfurl down to the edge of Napa Valley Country Club. Beyond the vineyards and golf course there are beautiful views of the Vaca Mountains and Mt. George. Their wine line-up includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and a white blend (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier). In addition, under the Appellations brand, they make a really good Bourdeaux blend by acquiring one ton of the best grapes they can procure from each of the 16 AVA’s in Napa. It is one of our favorites.
Next up was Palmaz Vineyards. This winery has been recommended to us multiple times in the past. The winery is owned by Dr. Julio Palmaz and his wife Amalia. Dr. Palmaz invented the balloon stent which revolutionized coronary care. It has been said the winery is a cross between Star Wars and Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It is unlike any other winery in Napa. First, it is all built into the side of a mountain with everything located underground. From top to bottom it is as tall as an 18 story building. The winery is constructed in such a manner that all fluids are moved around thru gravity flow. The fermentation room consists of multiple stainless steel tanks assembled in a circle that are on a track allowing them to be rotated. The fruit comes in above and moves along a conveyor belt where hand sorting is done. At the end of the conveyor the fruit drops into a bin that directs the grapes into the tank below. More spectacularly, each tank is computer controlled with proprietary software developed by the winery and data from each tank is projected on the dome like ceiling above the tank showing various parameters that are monitored continuously.
As impressive as the winery is, the wines they make are very good. We began our tasting with a 2015 Riesling, not a wine you typically think about in Napa, followed by their Chardonnay (called Amalia) that is very much done in the Burgundian style with crisp acidity and great flavors of apples, lemons and baking spices. Impressive whites, but Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary focus here. We tasted both the 2013 and the 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. 2013 was a drought year but Palmaz was able to produce a stunning wine with lots of deep blue and black fruit expressions. The 2014 vintage displayed elegant aromatics of dark fruit and spice and was a full bodied wine with great structure and excellent tastes of dark plums, blueberries, figs and espresso. We also tasted the 2014 Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon which is a big, bold wine with great tastes of blackberries and cocoa. I am sure it would pair very nicely with any kind of red meat you put in front of it. Finally we tasted the 2014 Brasas Cabernet Sauvignon, really a Bourdeaux blend, which was also quite big and expressive. We loved all of the wines we tasted at Palmaz. Again, if you have the time it is well worth visiting this unique winery.
Our final visit in Coombsville was to Azur Wines. Azur is owned by Julien and Elan Fayard. The winery is as understated as Palmaz is overstated and reflects the diversity in styles in Napa and Coombsville. It is situated in a small tasting room constructed of reclaimed lumber from an old barn and overlooks pasture lands and gentle hills where horses graze. Julien cut his teeth in wine making at such esteemed houses as Lafite Rothschild and Smith Haut Lafitte in Bourdeaux as well as working with Phillipe Melka in Napa. He and Elan believe that the wines should speak for themselves and be expressions of the terroir that allow these wines to be made, and thus not manipulated by the winemaker. Azur was one of the first Napa wineries to make Rose’ intentionally and they have set the standard by which all other Rose’ wines are judged. We tasted the 2016 vintage Rose’ and it was really elegant with nice tastes of peach and spices. It is made from Syrah and Grenache grapes. Julien has another label called Empreinte and we tasted a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc that was a really nice wine. We moved onto red wines, including a 2014 Empreinte Granache made from grapes grown in Rutherford. It was a very full bodied, sexy wine that I would describe as a Cabernet drinker’s Granache. We took a bottle of it with us for dinner that night. We also tasted the 2013 Azur Bourdeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot that was very fruit forward with great tastes of black and blue fruit. It had a great finish and the tannins were incredibly sleek. We enjoyed several other Cabernet based wines, finishing up with the 2014 Empreinte Martinez Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for this wine come from the Martinez vineyard on Pritchard Hill and is a full-bodied, multi-layered wine with wonderful tastes of fruit and spices and ultra-sleek tannins. We really enjoyed all of the wines at Azur/Empreinte.
Our first stop on day two was high up Spring Mountain on the west side of the Napa Valley at Fisher Vineyards. It was a cold and rainy day and the drive was a little tricky as we arrived on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain. The winery and adjacent vineyards are extremely scenic and were founded by Fred and Juelle Fisher. The winery building has a rustic but comfortable feel and was constructed with timber that was harvested and milled on site. We did our tasting in a little area adjacent to and just above the fermentation tanks. Fisher owns vineyards adjacent to the winery as well as a vineyard on the valley floor just south of Calistoga in Napa County. These vineyards
allow them to make some very interesting and tasty wines. They produce Chardonnay from a vineyard located at about 1,300 feet that faces northeast allowing for a gradual ripening of the grapes with very little exposure to the west sun. We tasted the 2014 vintage and it was an impressive wine with a beautiful straw color and impressive tastes of mellons, lemons and some nuttiness. Next up we tasted 3 distinctly different red wines. First, we tasted the 2013 Mountain Estate Cabernet. It was a dark garnet color with lots of deep fruit and floral aromas and was a real powerhouse wine. It was very fruit forward with lots of blackberry, black currants and spice on the palate. This wine has 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot and 3% Petite Verdot. The next wine we tasted was the 2014 Coach Insignia Cabernet from Calistoga. It too is a blend with 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 8% Malbec. It was a big, bold but also elegant wine that we thoroughly enjoyed. Lots of blue fruit, tobacco and spice with sleek tannins and a great finish. The last wine we tasted was the 2009 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This was a fabulous wine with great aromatics, intense fruit and spice on the palate and ultra fine tannins.
Our day took an unusual, but planned turn next. Our son Zach is very much a beer guy, and knowing we were going to be 5 miles away from Santa Rosa we planned to visit Russian River Brewing Company. We found our way to the brewery just before lunch and much to our surprise there was not a wait to get in. To say Zach was in beer heaven would be an understatement. We all picked out a beer to enjoy with our delicious pizza. Zach and I both ordered a Pliny the Elder double IPA, a perfect match for the pizza. We decided afterwards to order a tasting flight of all 22 beers they had on tap that day. These beers covered the gamut of styles from blondes to ales to IPA’s to stouts to porters to sours and everything in between. It was a great way to experience the spectrum of craft beers offered from one of the premier craft beer breweries. We all had a really good time.
We then headed back over to St. Helena to visit Mad Fritz Brewing, an almost cult status brewery that several people had told us about. The brewmaster and founder is Nile Zacherle, who is also the winemaker at David Arthur Wines on Pritchard Hill. He is married to Whitney Fisher, the winemaker at Fisher Wines, which we visited earlier in the day. We were blown away by the creativity Nile is using to craft unique brews. One in particular that we tasted was the Terroir Series which was brewed using materials grown or sourced within 20 miles of the brewery including the water! We tasted the Napa version of this, but they make a Sonoma county and Mendocino county version as well. The beers are named after Aesop’s Fables and the name Mad Fritz is the combination of their childrens’ names, Madeline and Frederick. The beers are some of the most unique beers we have ever tried. Nile is working on opening a taproom very near his current location where his beers can be tasted in a more commercial setting. We were able to actually taste 2 different barleys to appreciate how unique each one can be. And, though Nile spoke to us throughout the tasting, he was actually actively brewing beer in the same room so we got an up close view of the process. He even let us taste the “wort”-the liquid extracted from the mashing process. Wort contains the sugars that will ferment with the brewing yeast to produce alcohol. If you like special beers I strongly recommend visiting Mad Fritz Brewing.
Dinner that night was at Cole’s Chop House, also one of our favorite places to eat a good steak in Napa. I previously wrote about Cole’s a few weeks ago and as we have come to expect, the food was excellent and the service top notch. Eric Keffer, the proprietor, has created a world class steakhouse in downtown Napa that you should try. We have dinner there almost every time we are in the area.
We were really excited about our day three lineup. Both of our planned visits were to wineries located at the southern base of Howell Mountain overlooking Lake Hennessey. First up was Aonair, a small boutique winery founded by Grant Long. Grant has been making wine since he was a teenager. He and his wife, Megan, own and manage the winery. The location is set on a bluff overlooking a small valley of vineyards and looks like a mountain hunting cabin. We started our tasting sitting on the large back porch overlooking the vineyards in Adirondack chairs set up around a fire pit. Grant’s father, Grant, Sr. conducted our tasting. We tasted a number of their wines including a White Wine Blend which had big components of Sauvignon Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc, with a small portion of Semillon. Our favorites were the red wines we tasted, including a Proprietary Red Blend which has all 5 of the typical Bourdeaux grapes as well as a Grenache which has grapes sourced from El Dorado county. Both of these wines were extremely good with the Grenache being one of our favorites for the trip with great tastes of dark fruit, black pepper and some smokiness. Aonair is a beautiful, off the beaten path winery that more people should learn about. (Or maybe not. I don’t want their wines to be too hard to get!)
After a quick lunch at Rutherford Grill in Rutherford (a great place to grab lunch when you are in the valley), we drove back up the mountain to Amizetta, a winery we consider our absolute favorite place in Napa. Lisa and I visited Amizetta about 6 weeks ago but Zach and Bekah also consider it to be their favorite winery as well so we ventured back up there with hopes they would not send us away for visiting too often! Fortunately we had a very nice afternoon to be visiting Amizetta and Roscoe guided us thru a number of their wines as well as allowed us to do some barrel tastings as well. Our visit was as wonderful as ever and their wines continue to shine in our eyes in terms of quality as well as price. The views from their place in wine heaven are spectacular, especially on a clear, crisp afternoon. A must place to visit in my opinion.
Our final stop of the day was to Hill Family Estate’s tasting room in Yountville. We had not originally set up a tasting there, but were able to call from the car to get a tasting set up. We have been enjoying Hill Family wines for many years and have gotten to know Ryan Hill very well. Ryan is one of the most creative marketers I have ever met and their tasting room reflects his creativity. Ryan’s father owns a large vineyard management company as well as a number of vineyards around the Napa Valley. Ryan convinced his father they needed to open a winery and the fruits of that effort are reflected in the tasting room. In addition to things like cabernet stained guitars and surfboards, they also pour some very good wines. We have never been disappointed with any of the wines we taste there and they make a wide spectrum as well. I strongly recommend a visit to Hill Family Estate. Their tasting room is located next door to Bistro Jeanty, one of our favorite restaurants in Napa.
Speaking of Bistro Jeanty, we dined there that night and as usual we had a spectacular meal with outstanding service from Daryl, who has served us several times in the past. I could not pass up the Crême de Tomate en Croute (tomato soup in a puff pastry) and it was absolutely fantastic. For entrée’s, we all selected something different. Lisa had a veal chop, Zach had the steak frites, Bekah had the slow roasted pork shoulder and I could not resist the Bouef Bourguignon. Needless to say we did not leave hungry. The food and service at Bistro Jeanty is consistently outstanding and in my opinion it is one of the best value for the price restaurants in the entire valley.
Day four included some windshield time as we drove to Windsor in Sonoma County to visit Bruliam Wines, a small winery specializing in single vineyard Pinot Noir. They also make Chardonnay and Rose’, and a very limited amount of Zinfandel. Kerith Overstreet is the visionary behind Bruliam Wines, as well as the winemaker, cellar rat and everything in between! Kerith celebrated her 10th year making Bruliam in 2017. Her parents insisted she go to medical school, but after completing her residency and 2 fellowships, she decided wine making was much more interesting. She has worked very hard to build a brand and lets the wines speak for themselves. She makes wines from such famous vineyards as Gaps Crown in Sonoma, the Soberanes vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands (next door to the famous Garys’ vineyard), the Sangiacomo Roberts Road vineyard in the Peteluma Gap region of Sonoma, and the Rockpile Vineyard in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma. The winery gets its name from the first letters of her childrens’ names; Bruno, Lily and Amelia.
We visited with her about a month ago when she was in Houston for the Livestock Show & Rodeo wine competition where she won a double gold medal for her Sangiacomo Pinot Noir. I strongly suggest you find the time to visit her in Windsor.
We then headed to St. Helena to visit Sinegal, a beautiful winery tucked up against the bottom of the Mayacamas Mountains on the west side of the Napa Valley. Sinegal sits on 30 acres originally known as the Inglewood Estate. Adjacent to the winery and some of the vineyards is a small pond with a couple of seating areas. The view from there is fantastic. Unfortunately it was raining that afternoon so we conducted our tasting inside the winery. The winery is owned by Jim Sinegal and his son David. We tasted a number of their wines, including a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Cabernet Franc, a Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Each wine was outstanding. We especially enjoyed the Reserve Cabernet which was luscious with great tastes of blue fruit and cocoa with excellent structure. A hidden gem just off Highway 29 near St. Helena.
Our first tasting was at Tamber Bey Vineyards, located on Tubbs Road just north of Calistoga (and just down the street from Chateau Montelana). Tamber Bey is one of the more unique wineries we have ever visited since it also functions as an active horse ranch (called Sundance Ranch) and horse rescue facility.
Founded in 1999 by Barry and Jennifer Waitte. Barry was one of the first employees at a small startup called Apple and worked there for over a decade. However, his passion for horses and wine led him to Napa where he bought vineyards in Yountville and in Oakville as well as the acreage where the horse ranch and winery are located. Barry and Jennifer compete in endurance horse racing (50 to 100 mile cross country races). Their initial wine maker was Thomas Rivers Brown, who now serves as a consultant to the current wine maker (who happened to be on site that day but we did not get to meet him). We enjoyed a number of their wines sitting in the tasting area looking directly at Mt. Helena due north of the ranch and winery. We really enjoyed the 2015 Deux Chevaux Yountville Merlot as well as the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from the same vineyard, plus the 2014 Estate Vineyard Oakville Cabernet and the 2014 Rabicano Red Blend. Their wines are extremely good and excellent values for the money. I really enjoyed this winery.
We next headed over to Brian Arden Wines, a special little winery located just south of Calistoga on the Silverado Trail. We first discovered this winery in 2016 when we were staying in Calistoga and just dropped in one afternoon. The tasting room is very inviting and comfortable with a great view of the Palisade Mountains. Brian Harlan and his father Arden Harlan founded the winery in 2010 and opened the facility in 2014. We have had the pleasure of meeting both of them on previous occasions and Arden is a great storyteller! We did a seated food and wine pairing in their large kitchen adjacent to the tasting room. There, Angel led us thru the tasting while Grace masterfully prepared each course perfectly selected for the wines we tasted. We really liked the Carrot Ginger Soup paired with the 2014 Reserve Chardonnay, the Pork Gyoza with Black Garlic paired with the 2013 Cabernet Franc, and the Morroccan Spiced Lamb Meatballs paired with the 2013 Syrah. This was one of our most favorite food and wine pairings we have ever done. I can’t say enough good things about this winery.
Our final tasting for the week was at The Terraces, another small winery located just east of the Silverado Trail in Rutherford. It is owned by Timm and Sharon Crull. The winery is tucked up the hillside above the Silverado Trail and is a very peaceful place to enjoy very good wines. Our tasting was led by Dominic Canizzaro, the assistant winemaker. We tasted a wide range of wines including a beautiful 2016 Chardonnay, the 2016 Riesling from grapes grown in Clarksburg (south of Sacramento), the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel from the estate, a 2015 Petite Syrah and the 2014 Rhyolite Estate Red Blend (62.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc, and 12.5% Zinfandel). Each of these wines was very tasty and we really enjoyed the red blend with its great aromatics and lots of jammy fruit tastes.
Our time in the wine world was once again a truly enjoyable one. I hope this blog helps the reader understand the vast spectrum of different types of wineries, from massive, technology driven places like Palmaz to cozy wineries like Fisher and Brian Arden. Each of them has two things in common: they make really good wines and know how to showcase them in unique ways. You should visit some of them soon.