Who: Summit Lake Vineyards
Gretchen Brakesman must be the life of any party. She exuberantly welcomed me to the Brakesman family home on the Summit Lake property with an armful of wine. We spent a lovely April afternoon on their picnic table amidst the vines rolling through conversations, serious about wine and comical about life.
This is a family-run winery in the truest sense. When I pulled into the gate, I passed founder Bob Brakesman on a tractor mowing the winter cover crop between the vine rows. Bob and his late wife Sue purchased this remote property at 2,000 feet elevation in 1971 for just $40,000 and soon after started making wine.
Gretchen's husband Brian Brakesman took over full-time winemaking duties this year. He rejoined the family business a few years ago after winemaker roles at Paraduxx and Ledson. Gretchen herself has a solid resume of business and compliance management for other Napa wineries. They both still consult for outside wineries while launching their own brand, Red Thread Wines, this past year.
Throughout the afternoon, I met nearly every welcoming member of the Brakesman family as they came and went. Everyone has a role in making these really special wines, from farming to marketing and everything in between. Brian joined us for a while and gave me a ton of insight into Howell's terroir.
Where: Howell Mountain AVA
2000 Summit Lake Dr, Angwin, CA 94508
Tastings by Appointment Only
Angwin is an odd outpost of a town northeast of St. Helena. It's home to a handful of top-tier wineries and a Seventh Day Adventist college (and not much else). Howell Mountain was the first designated American Viticulture Area within Napa Valley and has maintained a consistent yet under-appreciated reputation for quality Cabernet Sauvignon. In my experience, sommeliers and wine biz folks readily laud Howell Mountain, but average wine aficionados don't know much of it. Tourists rarely make the drive up the hill, except to big brands like Cade. I'm my opinion, that's a great thing because it preserves the "Old Napa" family-centered experience.
There's a huge difference in growing conditions between the valley floor and Howell Mountain that directly translates to the wines. Most of Napa's wines come from vineyards in the valley, which are subjected to bigger weather swings and more intensely hot summer days. Howell has warmer mornings because it's above the fog lines, but the heat is more consistent. Due to the elevation, days are 10 degrees cooler and nights are 10 degrees warmer than the valley on average. These weather patterns affect the vines in several ways. Bud break is typically 2 weeks behind the valley and ripening is slower. This climate helps create powerful and tannic Cabernet that can be too bold upon release, but incredible with age. The other big factor in determining Howell's style is the soil, which is composed of well-draining tufa (a decomposed volcanic ash) and red clay. Drainage forces the vines to live off less water, which in turn creates more concentrated grapes.
Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah
Summit Lake's wines are not your average jammy Napa Cabs. They find a way to make really balanced wines with elegant tannins, not at all harshly tannic like I was expecting of Howell wines.
Summit Lake focuses on Cab, Zin, and Petit Sirah, producing around 1,200 cases per year. I tasted though most of their current wines and also Red Thread's inaugural releases, the 2014 Red Blend and 2016 White Zinfandel (rose). Gretchen and Brian make just 100 cases of these. Below are my highlights.
The 2016 Red Thread White Zinfandel is fruity and refreshing, a nice middle-of-the road rose. It's not overtly dry, minerally, and crisp like some roses made in the Vin Gris style. I can see it being a big crowd-pleaser.
The 2012 Summit Lake Zin was awesome and threw me for a loop. It is characterized by dried fruits like raisins and dates, black pepper, and very soft tannins. It could fool me for a Merlot/Petit Sirah blend. I was absolutely intrigued and excited to taste something so distinct from the Dry Creek Valley style of Zin which I'm used to.
Summit Lake's 2012 Emily Kestrel Cabernet Sauvignon is noted by baking spices, dark cherry, blackberry, and a very full body. Again, the tannins were well integrated and not bitter.
The 2014 Red Thread Red Blend is a 70% Cabernet-based blend. with some Petit Sirah and Zin rounding it out. This is a dense wine with excellent balance. Rich flavors of dark fruit with a distinctly strong espresso bean finish. I loved this wine, although it is very different than the Summit Lake style of Cabernet. To me, it's more in the vein of the classic Napa Valley style: fruit forward and silky body.
Why: Intriguing wines, Awesome family
If you think you know Napa, head to Summit Lake and discover a new perspective. The wines are all unique in character, which is so refreshing to experience. It was a great reminder to me to not get bored with Napa Cabernet and Zinfandel, because there are people making really interesting wines out there.
I also love how down-to earth the family is and how connected they are to the business. Many of the wines (like the Blythe Rose and Emily Cabernet) are named after the Brakesman grandchildren. This is a family with a huge sense of humor, too. Gretchen introduced me to all the farm animals, including a pregnant goat and a toupeed duck. The winery is adorned with family photos, including one of Bob and Sue coyly veiled in the buff!
As the generational torch is passed, I think the Brakesman family has plenty more success in store. No doubt they'll continue making excellent wine without pretension at their little mountaintop retreat. I highly encourage a visit.
Who: Reeve Wines
Reeve is a new project of Noah and Kelly Dorrance, who are part owners of Banshee in Healdsburg. Banshee has experienced phenomenal growth since opening in 2009 and now sells over 80,000 cases a year (WOW!!!). At the new family project, named after their son Reeve, they never plan to grow above a 3,000 case capacity.
Where: Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
4551 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg CA 95448
Tastings by Appointment Only, Thursday to Monday
$15 per person fee, 5 wines tasted
The Dorrances purchased an estate on the north side of Dry Creek Road in mid 2016. Formerly the home of Kachina Vineyards, they did a quick renovation and opened in November 2016. The estate has a few acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and they plan to expand with a few more varietals.
Wine: Pinot, Rose, Riesling
As mentioned above, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the estate varieties, and they purchased some barrels of it from the former owners. This wine has been released as their first Native Anthem. It is lighter in body and tannin than a traditional California Cab, and has little spice to it.
Reeve's 2015 Petrichor Vineyard Syrah was not noteworthy for me. It was fruit forward, but without the cool climate Syrah characteristics of either olive, bacon, or pepper that I enjoy.
The highlights of the tasting were the Rose, Riesling, and Pinor Noir. The 2016 Rose of Pinot Noir is fruity, but nice and dry. It'll be a knockout on a hot summer day.
The 2015 McFadden Vineyard Riesling, which I had had previously, is an all-star. It is one of my new favorite CA Rieslings. It's incredibly aromatic with citrus zest, green apple, white peach, and petrol notes. The acidity is strong and it's completely dry. Sam, who guided our tasting, told us this has been selling like hotcakes, and I see why.
I was likewise impressed with the 2015 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Coming from Dorrance's experience with Banshee, it's no surprise the Pinot is well-made. I'm a tough critic of Pinot, since it's not my preferred varietal and the fact that the market is flooded with mediocre Pinots. This one is a nice balance between fruit and savory flavors, without the cherry-cola-ness of so many Pinots from this region.
Reeve will be expanding as they evolve in the next few vintages, with Sangiovese on deck for the next release.
Why: Quality Wine and an Exciting New Entry
Reeve represents an exciting new step for a well-known Sonoma County vintner. This is a passion project aside from their commercially popular Banshee brand, and you can understand that upon visiting. The focus on smaller production and diverse varietals will continue to yield some excellent wines. The estate itself is tucked far enough off Dry Creek Road to seem remote. It's a simple, small facility, but one with plenty of outdoor space and pleasant views. Sam is a delightful host, and each tasting comes with a local charcuterie board. Despite my opinion that the Cab and Syrah need some improvement, I have no doubt that it will happen over future vintages. The other wines are worth buying by the case!
Who: Jaffurs Wine Cellars
Aerospace accountant Craig Jaffurs started making wine in 1989, with the first release of his eponymous wine in 1994. Jaffurs has cemented his place as a Syrah guru, but also produces other lovely wines. In 2016, he initiated his retirement process by selling to winemaker Dan Green. Luckily, Jaffurs will ensure a smooth transition and remain involved in company oversight.
Where: Santa Barbara, CA
Jaffurs Wine Cellars is located only 8 blocks from the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. This is a true urban winery, housed in a small facility without much signage. When we arrived, they were wrapping up crush activities for the day. A tasting table is set up in the wine production room and we got to speak with the assistant winemaker and cellar hands as they were going about their work.
Wine: Syrah and Other Rhone Varietals
Jaffurs specializes in Rhone varietals, and they are core members of the Rhone Rangers organization. They bottle 8 Syrahs (mostly single-vineyard), along with Grenache Blanc and Rouge, Viognier, Roussanne, Pinot Noir, and Petit Sirah.
Why: Big Syrahs
The 2012 Larner Vineyard Syrah was one of the favorite wines I tasted all year. This is a BIG Syrah: deep color, ripe fruit, high alcohol, and lots of complexity. I'm not partial to warm or cool climate styles of Syrah; I like both if made well. And this Larner Vineyard bottling is awesome. All of the Syrahs we tasted were excellent, but this was my favorite and the purchase to take home.
I also really, really enjoyed the 2012 Grenache. Again, it is a big fruity wine with high alcohol, as Grenache can tend to be. But it also has some nice floral and savory notes that balance it out, along with decent tannins, perhaps due to the 1/3 whole cluster inclusion at maceration. I brought this wine home for my Florida New Year's Eve 2017 tasting event. It was a big hit.
Who: Liana Estates
Liana is a new project of the Peju family, of Napa Cabernet fame. The Pejus purchased the old Acacia winery after the brand was acquired by Constellation. The renovated tasting room was opened in late 2016. Liana is a portmanteau of the first names of the Peju daughters, Lisa and Ariana, who oversee the winery.
Where: Carneros, 2750 Las Amigas Road, Napa
Wine: Bubbly, Whites, and Limited Reds
Liana's focus is on sparkling and white wines, and they do it very well. The two reds (a Cab-based Vintner's Blend and a Pinot Noir) need some improvement.
The Liana Bubbles Club is their sparkling brand, which yields a Blanc de Blanc, a Brut, and a Rose. All of them were enjoyable, especially the Rose with strawberry and brioche aromas, crisp high acid, but balanced with body.
Liana offers a wide selection of quality whites, including Viognier, Dry Orange Muscat, Chardonnay, and a Vintner's White Blend (Viognier based). The Viognier and Muscat really stood out.
The 2015 Viognier is really floral driven. Green apple and jasmine aromas accented a full body and a long finish. This is a solid Viognier and will please anyone who appreciates the varietal.
The 2015 Orange Muscat (formally Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains) is thankfully totally dry. This varietal is known for the famous Moscato d'Asti and the horrendous-sweet-cheap Moscato that flies off American supermarket shelves. Liana's Muscat is elegant, with intriguing aromas of orange blossom (hence the Orange Muscat moniker), honeysuckle, and Persian lime zest. It's got big acid and a medium body. It finishes on the palate like crushed flowers trampled in dirt, but in a really alluring way. If you drink Rhone Viognier or Bordeaux Muscadelle, you'll love this wine.
The 2014 Pinot Noir tasted like Cheerwine. If you're from the Southeastern US, you'll understand the reference. If not, Google it. Enough said.
The 2014 Vintner's Red is a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. It drank like a light Merlot or dark Pinot Noir. It had nice acid, but lacked in tannic structure and complex aromas. It's nice to see a departure from big Cabs and a contrast to the Peju Province wines, but this Cab blend needs some retooling.
Why: Great Whites and Hospitality
Normally I'm skeptical of large Napa wineries. The mindset of those located on Highway 29 is different than any other CA wine region. It is swayed by copious tourism, cult cabs, and the pursuit of points. There are things about Liana that I dislike. They sell their wine on Amazon, which leads me to believe their goal is big volume sales. The outdoor space is poorly planned - dominated by their parking area - and only the private 3rd floor banquet room takes advantage of the stunning Carneros views. There is a comfy covered patio opposite the entrance, although there are only two tables and a tree-obstructed view.
Napa prejudice and architectural critiques aside, I truly did enjoy the experience at Liana Estates. The interior ambiance is modern and spacious. Taylor, who guided our tasting, and Santiago, the GM, were exceptionally welcoming. They took us on a tour of the facility, including the new special events building, which piqued Lindsay's wedding planner interest.
In the end, hospitality and architecture are just window dressing for the wine. And the whites at Liana are terrific. I recommend a visit when you're in Carneros, especially as a departure from the Pinot-centric neighbors. I'll return to keep the Muscat flowing.
Who: Pride Mountain Vineyards
Pride is a family owned winery, operating since 1991. This historic property (first named Summit Ranch, dating back to the 1860's) was bought by the Pride family in 1989. Jim Pride, raised in a farming family, became a very successful dentist before turning his attention to winemaking. Pride passed away in 2004, and his two children currently own and run the company.
Where: Spring Mountain District, Napa AND Sonoma Counties
Pride Mountain Vineyards straddles the county border of Napa and Sonoma. Upon our visit, we learned just how complex this makes life. The winery itself sits smack on the border and must be bonded in each county. (Bonding is a guarantee on tax revenue on wine production.) Even crazier - wine from the Napa vineyards must be barrel aged in the Napa half of the cellar, and vice versa with the Sonoma wines. As the original name Summit Ranch implies, this gorgeous property sits atop Spring Mountain. The far outside end of the cellar has a patio with stunning views of the vineyards and distant mountains.
Wine: Known for Cab, but impresses around the board
Pride's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, and Viognier are their most heralded wines, if you can accept the number of times they've been served at White House state dinners as an indicator. The walls of the tasting room are adorned with copies of the menus, being served under D and R administrations. Pride also continually gets 90+ point scores from the big critics, if that's important to you. The fruity and spicy Merlot and rich Syrah were favorites of our visit, and we couldn't resist leaving with some Syrah.
Why: The Wine Quality and the Location!
I liked everything I tasted at Pride Mountain. Their focus is clearly quality Bordeaux (plus Chard), but they branch out successfully to a handful of others to keep it interesting. For a famous "Napa" winery, the tasting experience at Pride are incredibly affordable at $20. The tour includes a walk through the cellars with some barrel tastings, culminating in a few glasses of wine on the patio overlooking the mountains. Our host Katrina made our visit a blast, with her sharp wit and relaxed demeanor. It's not advertised, but bring a picnic lunch and spend more time there, soaking in the views and savoring the wine. Feel free to stroll around the vineyards while you're at it. This is a laid-back place, which is so welcome compared to other Napa peers.
Review from Wine for Normal People
Who: Mauritson Wines
Mauritson is a family owned and operated winery. Originally six generations of only farmers, they released their first Mauritson labeled vintage in 1998.
Where: Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
Located at 2859 Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, a few miles west of Highway 101. The tasting room is open daily from 10:00-5:00. The generously portioned tastings cost $20, and are waived with the purchase of wine. Jonathan of the tasting room staff was very friendly, spending plenty of time discussing the wines with me despite a packed house. It is also dog-friendly, and my lab Nash was treated like a visiting celebrity and showered with treats.
Wine: A wide variety, but Zinfandel is their specialty.
Mauritson makes around 12,000 cases of wine annually. This places them firmly in the middle of small-size wineries. Attention to detail matters here. Their focus is terroir-driven Zinfandel. From their vineyards in the Rockpile AVA, Mauritson makes seven vineyard-designate Zins. I was lucky enough to taste three of them side-by-side. All were of outstanding quality with varying levels of tannins and fruit. In the horizontal comparison, you can really differentiate between the subtle characteristics... which is the point of terroir-driven winemaking! You'll want to taste everything Mauritson produces: including their Sauvignon Blanc, pale Rose of Cab Franc, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and the Petit Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon from Rockpile. I was also really impressed with their "Independence" vintage Port-style wine. They grow four varietals of true Portuguese fruit specifically for this fortified wine: Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao, Tinta Madeira, and Sousao. Several Sonoma wineries make a fortified Zinfandel and call it "port", but Mauritson goes the extra mile for authenticity. It is heavier on the dark fruit than true Ports, but with age will balance out.
Why: Impressive quality and Rockpile domination
The Mauritsons have for generations owned land in the Rockpile AVA, and they farm over 70% of the acreage for themselves and other wineries. Zinfandel and Rockpile/Dry Creek Valley are often spoken in the same sentence, and Mauritson is an embodiment of this word association. They produce what winefolk call "typicity", signature characteristics of the right grape grown in the right location. The Zinfandels are some of the best I've tasted. As mentioned above, the attention to quality in a wide variety of styles makes Mauritson really stand out from one-hit wonders. I am not often impressed across-the-board, and Mauritson accomplished that.