Smith-Madrone is quintessentially Old School California. If you asked me for an authentic wine tasting experience, I would be remiss to not include them on any itinerary. They're the Deans of Old School.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, it's a long, twisty drive from either Santa Rosa or St. Helena to reach Smith-Madrone. Their low-key property is hidden between fancier neighbors like Pride Mountain, Barnett, and Schweiger. Walk around the property and you'll find magnificent views clear across Napa Valley.
Brothers Charlie and Stuart Smith, both pushing 70 years old, are a delightful anachronism. Their winemaking philosophy, not to mention the facilities, remains largely unchanged since the first vintage of 1977. The vineyards are dry farmed, which encourages terroir in the wine through the grapevine's struggle to find water and nutrients. Smith-Madrone is the definition of a small family operation: Stu manages the vineyard, Charlie makes the wine, and Stu's son Sam is assistant winemaker, the next generation to carry forward the legacy.
When you arrive for your appointment, you'll meet one of the brothers themselves in the old barn. Stu is a storyteller and humorist who'll keep you entertained for hours. The first time I met him, we bashed Australian wines for a good hour. Charlie is a bit more stoic, serious about his wine. Tastings are held in the shadows of the towering barrel stacks. There are no seats. There are no tasting notes. There is no paired charcuterie plate. What you will get is the incredibly priceless time with a Napa winemaking legend and samples of their three (four if you're lucky) wines.
Smith-Madrone only produces Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth wine is a premium Cabernet called Cook's Flat Reserve which eschews the extreme boldness of other Napa "Cult Cabs". Each of their wines fascinate me not just because they are good, but because they are approachable while young and supremely age-worthy.
And their Cabernet, at around $50 a bottle, is a steal. The most recent release, the 2014 vintage, has aromas of pipe tobacco, unripe black plum, blackberry, and exceptionally integrated oak. When you sip it, a rush of juiciness washes over your palate and the silky texture falls effortlessly down the hatch. The medium strength tannins cling to the insides of your cheeks to extend the long dark cocoa finish.
Not only is the Cab delicious upon release, but it can age for 30+ years. At Smith-Madrone's 2017 harvest party*, they opened bottles of the 1992, 1988, and 1979 vintages. I generally dislike very old wines because most fall out of balance, but these wines were impeccable.
Smith-Madrone's Riesling is one of my all-time favorite white wines. Period. It has all the mouthwatering acidity and crisp fruit of American Rieslings, but also the rare Petrol fume character that punctuates superlative Alsatian or German Riesling. Smith-Madrone's version marries all that with complexity and elegance.
If you're too hip for Chardonnay, the vinous target of all "mom jokes," you should rethink your position. The Smith Brothers craft an awesome Chardonnay. The new release, vintage 2015, is perfectly balanced with lush lemon, apple, and pear fruits, smooth body, and a precise amount of new oak. A whopping amount of acidity ensures this wine never even tip-toes near dullness, and the finish is as elegant as they come. This Chardonnay isn't your mom's Tuesday night crutch.
Whenever visiting Sonoma or Napa, you need to careen into the mountains for Smith-Madrone. You'll end your trip feeling like you've stumbled onto the best secret of your life.
Open by appointment, 11:00 or 2:00 M, W, F, & Sat only.
*Incidentally, the October 2017 Harvest Party I attended took place the day before the Napa-Sonoma wildfires started. Smith-Madrone was in serious danger, but luckily survived the fires unscathed.
Vigilance Winery & Vineyards
My stop at Vigilance Winery in the Red Hills wasn’t planned. In fact, it was the result of a tragic accident on my initial visit to Lake County. Descending Highway 29 from Mount Saint Helena, which separates Napa and Lake Counties, a nasty motorcycle accident logjam forced me to miss my first tasting and threw off my schedule for the day. Looking to use my leftover time efficiently, I stopped into Vigilance’s hospitality center, conveniently located on the way to my next appointment. I’m glad I did, because Vigilance quickly became my favorite Lake County winery. The variety of wines produced, their excellent quality, remarkable value, and the magnificent setting far exceeded my expectations.
Winemaker Joy Merrilees, whose cheerful presence fittingly matches her name, guided me through the multiple brands and wines - 50 in total - produced here. Vigilance is one of six brands under the Shannon Ridge family of wines and is crafted solely from their Red Hills AVA vineyard. The “Vigilance” moniker is inspired by the dogs which watch over the 700-strong herd of sheep who graze the vineyards. Shannon’s massive sheep operation is a natural means of pest control and fertilization, just one of their sustainable farming practices. This Lower Lake location serves as the only hospitality center for the portfolio, including the brands Shannon Ridge, High Valley, and Buck Shack, which you can conveniently taste in one spot. The common characteristic across the multiple brands was a noticeably balanced texture and dusty tannins among the red wines.
Among my favorite wines, the 2016 Vigilance Sauvignon Blanc displayed medium weight, a silky finish, ripe peach, lemon, chalky mineral and faint cut grass aromas. While Lake County gets most of its public recognition from bold red wines, Vigilance has been doing lots of experimentation with Sauvignon Blanc. Merrilees told me she sees a big potential for high quality Sauvignon Blanc in Lake County, and this wine proves her right.
Lake County’s signature red variety, Petite Sirah, is crafted with elegance here. It is frequently overlooked as a single varietal wine and is instead used as a workhorse blending grape, found in popular red wines like The Prisoner. When bottled by itself, Petite Sirah’s dark fruit and chewy tannins can be oversimplified and overpowering. But skilled winemakers who understand the grape can create a wine as beautifully balanced and complex as Cabernet. Merrilees has done that here with the 2014 High Valley Petite Sirah. Copious dusty tannins, coffee, chaparral, blackberry, dark cherry, and a long finish punctuate this superb wine.
As for Cabernet, Shannon Ridge does that capably, too. The 2014 Shannon Reserve Home Ranch Cabernet is produced from half Red Hills AVA fruit and half High Valley AVA fruit. White pepper, bell pepper, caramel, ripe cassis, high tannin, full body, and a rich mid-palate make this a very compelling, textural wine.
The 2013 High Valley Barbera was another standout. With very aromatic ripe red fruit, the fresh acidity and hefty, yet balanced tannins, make this is a stunningly structured example of California Barbera. This powerful Piemontese grape is a rarity, with only around 5,000 acres planted in the state. In comparison, there are over 90,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Wherever you can find Barbera produced domestically, it’s worth a try, and this was my favorite wine of the day.
Beyond the wines themselves, Vigilance offers an alluring backdrop. This southern area of Lake County is defined by the strikingly rusty volcanic clay soils, which are on full display as Vigilance’s vineyard tumbles down to the southern shore of Clear Lake. The unembellished tasting house offers plenty of opportunity to enjoy the view while you sip wine on the wooden deck. Or enjoy the paved picnic area located at the edge of the vineyard, complete with a bocce ball court. I have three personal criteria for great wine travel experiences: exceptional natural vistas, high quality wines, and personable hospitality. Vigilance Winery nails all three at a price point that would cost over double in Napa.
Find them at https://www.vigilancewinery.com/
Open for tasting seasonally, 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM Friday through Sunday
Sonoma County is blessed with some of the oldest wineries in America. Spanish missionaries and various European immigrants carried their vines and winemaking skills to California in successive waves. Agoston Haraszty, a Hungarian faux-count known as the "Father of California Viticulture", founded Buena Vista winery in the town of Sonoma in 1856. Nearby Gundlach Bundschu winery was founded in 1858 and is still family-owned.
While wineries such as these, and others throughout California, can claim the "oldest" this-or-that moniker, they've largely abandoned the qualities that made them truly "old school". Sure, they have old stone wine caves and antique winemaking equipment on display, but history has become a finely-crafted commodity dished out to tourists by well-rehearsed "brand ambassadors".
If not purely age, what then makes a winery authentically "old school"?
1. Some measure of historic significance going back at least a generation.
2. Active involvement of the proprietor in every stage of winegrowing.
3. Eschewing most modern techniques and equipment.
4. Refusal to repackage their history for mass tourism.
5. It's a given - but exceptional wine, honestly made, showing true terroir.
The producers below may not encompass ALL the wineries that fit that criteria, but among the hundreds I've visited, some of my favorite Old School warriors are right here in Sonoma.
Bucklin Old Hill Ranch
Accurately dating historic vineyards is a challenging task since written records don't often exist or get lost over time. Old Hill Ranch can make the argument that it is the oldest continuously-farmed vineyard in California. It was originally planted in 1852 and replanted in 1885. Many of those 1885 vines still live today, and are the most verifiable Sonoma old vines currently in production. (Sausal Ranch, with the oldest existing vines in Sonoma dating to mid-1870s, is owned by Silver Oak but not bottled. Presumably the grapes are sold off but not bottled by anyone as a vineyard designate.)
It's a real miracle that Old Hill Ranch still exists, especially after the tragic October 2017 wildfires that roared through Sonoma Valley. In fact, the day before the fires started, I visited Will Bucklin, the current owner/viticulturist/winemaker, for a tour of the 12 acre vineyard. They lost a few vines, but the vineyard was largely untouched thanks to Bucklin's covert firefighting efforts.
Will's mother and stepfather purchased the vineyard in 1981, although they didn't start making wine themselves until 2000. During the period between, they sold their grapes to Zinfandel king Joel Peterson, the founder of Ravenswood. His Old Hill Ranch vineyard designate became a cult Zin and resurrected the reputation of the vineyard.
While the majority of the old vines are Zinfandel, they are interplanted with Greache, Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah, and Carignane, among dozens of other varietals. Will knows every vine's identity like it's his own child. This haphazardly-planted, untrellised vineyard is about as pure as they come, too. The old vines are organically dry farmed, relying on their ancient deep roots to reach natural water sources.
Bucklin is a reluctant tour guide. As you would expect from a crusty old farmer, he hates what modern wine tourism has done to Sonoma, with throngs of wealthy, wine-guzzling yuppies descending on this rural paradise each summer. But he acknowledges that he needs to give more appointments in order to grow his customer base. The classic Catch-22.
The wines are primarily field blends, and capture the essence of terroir in a bottle. There are at least 12 varietals in the Mixed Whites, a zippy, round-bodied, aromatic delight. The firm, bold Ancient Field Blend is Zinfandel-dominant, but contains over two dozen (!!!) varietals from the oldest section of the vineyard. My personal favorite is their Upper 5th Ancient Field Blend, a Petite Sirah-based beauty.
If you are inclined to have an intellectual experience, appreciation for history, and can forgo wine tasting in your Italian loafers or high heels, Old Hill Ranch may be the coolest vineyard you'll ever visit. I also think it is the most historically significant vineyard you'll ever visit.
Tastings/tours by appointment only
Widower Bill Frick is a one-man phenom. Founded in 1976, his winery inhabits a remote corner of Dry Creek Valley just beyond Pedroncelli Winery. In addition to farming the vineyards and making the wines, Frick staffs the teeny tasting cottage himself on weekends, stoically pouring his wide selection of Rhone varietals. His wines, which all sell for $26 each, are only available direct from him. He bottles popular Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier, along with lesser-knowns like Cinsault, Counoise, Carignane, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre. Frick makes several white and red blends, as well. If you ask Bill which are his favorites, he'll pointedly tell you "All of them", and to hurry up and pick your next pour. He's no-nonsense, and so are the wines. His Cinsault and Mourvedre of some of my favorite examples of these rare varietals.
Open 12 - 4:30 without appointment on weekends, plus Fridays in the summer.
If you blink, you'll miss Nalle Winery on your drive along Dry Creek Valley Road. Perhaps you were too excited to reach a spectacular Italian villa down the road. But if you whizzed by without stopping, you've really missed out on the real Dry Creek Valley. Humble winemaking legend Doug Nalle founded his own label in 1984 while he worked as a winemaker for other ventures, notably DCV neighbor Quivira Vineyards. Since 1990, Nalle (pronounced Nawl, rhymes with Fall) has been devoted to his brand. His son Andrew now carries on the legacy as the winemaker.
Tastings take place in (or weather permitting, outside of) their earthen-roofed, above-ground wine cellar. This property, which has been in Doug's wife Lee's family since 1927, boasts 90+ year old dry-farmed Zinfandel vines. When I visited, a family friend poured me wines until Doug finished weed-whacking the driveway. Sweat-soaked, smelling of grass clippings and two stroke motor exhaust, Doug joined me for several hours to discuss his wine and international travel, among other things.
Nalle specializes in Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Out of their three distinct Zinfandels, the estate Old Vine Zin is a benchmark for what Dry Creek Valley Zin should be. Dusty tannins, brambly berry, and high acidity make this age-worthy Zin. Also, despite the fact that they only produce one Pinot Noir bottling annually, Nalle's Russian River Valley is one of my favorite Pinots. In contrast to the thousands of others on the market, Nalle renounces the typical cherry-cola explosion and floppy character that plague RRV Pinots. This Pinot has elements of mushroom, earth, fruit, and a heroic backbone.
Nalle is the first Old School experience I had after moving to Sonoma, and it's one of the first I recommend once people are ready to change their touristy ways.
Open without appointment every Saturday 12 - 4:30, and other days by appointment.
Joe Swan was a modern pioneer of Sonoma's Russian River Valley. In 1967, he purchased a 13 acre property in the town of Forestville which contained some old Zinfandel vines. Swan soon found the mentorship of Napa Valley legend Andre Tchelistcheff, a French-trained Russian immigrant known for running Napa's famed Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff convinced him that his property was prime for Burgundian varieties, so Swan planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With help from his assistant Joel Peterson (who later made his first Ravenswood wines here), Swan grew steadily during the 1970s. The estate vineyard today consists of mostly Pinot Noir, with smaller amounts of Syrah, Chardonnay, and Cabernet. Joseph Swan also pulls fruit from numerous other historic vineyards around Sonoma County for the 25 wines they produce annually.
When you show up to Joseph Swan's barn, you won't be greeted with hip music and ornate decor. Pull open that heavy barn door yourself, though, and you'll likely find owner/winemaker Rod Berglund humbly lounging among the barrels. Rod is so low-key, it took me 10 minutes of chatting until I figured out who he was. Berglund is Joe Swan's son-in-law, and he took over winemaking duties before Joe's death in 1989. The reputation of Joseph Swan Vineyards owes more to Berglund and his wife Lynn than it does to Swan himself at this point. They've been running the operation a decade longer than Swan ever did.
Be forewarned, however, these wines are unconventional. If you like staying in your comfort zone and want every Pinot Noir to taste like those on the supermarket shelf, don't bother trying them. These Pinots are diverse in profile, each owing to the terroir of their vineyards. The same goes for the multiple Chardonnays, Syrahs, and Zinfandels they make. Each wine has its own character, and tasting through them is a fascinating experience. You might not LIKE all of them, but if you have more than a passing interest in good wine, I promise you'll APPRECIATE all of them.
Swan's Pinots continue to gain serious critical acclaim. Their Trenton Estate Pinot regularly earns magazine scores in the high 90s, and the $74 price tag reflects that. But you'll find astonishing value and complexity in other wines, like the old vine Zinfandels, Petite Sirahs, and the surprising Tannat. Joseph Swan's 2012 Mancini Ranch Zinfandel, from 90 year old Russian River Valley vines, still ranks as one of the most interesting Zins I've ever had.
Open Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 4:30, no reservation required.
If you want to visit A. Rafanelli Winery in Dry Creek Valley, don't email them. There is no email address. You'll have to abandon the anonymity of your computer screen and call them. You also can't simply buy their wine online, only in person at the winery. In other words, go meet them.
The history is tangible here at A. Rafanelli. Family artifacts line the wine cave, which also contains an old wooden table where they still celebrate holidays. Awards and medals pepper the barn walls like they would in a proud parent's office. Antique equipment like foudres (giant wine barrels), oak fermentation tanks, and basket presses are center stage. Third generation owner Dave Rafanelli gave us a tour of the barn and wine cave while weaving family tales. His father, Americo, built this facility and planted the property in the 1950s. Prior to that, Americo's Italian immigrant father Alberto made wine starting in 1911 in the nearby town of Healdsburg. David's daughters Shelly and Stacy now make the wine and run the family business.
The Rafanellis only make three wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They each have a bold, jammy fruit and rustic tannin characteristic of the hot Dry Creek Valley. There's a brilliance to knowing what you're good at and what you love to make. No sly Red Blends. No Rosé. They don't chase down the hottest varietal or introduce new wine styles, but maintain a consistency that only a family operation can.
The wine is the draw inside, but you can't miss a walk around the property. Fragrant lavender beds crowd the barn from all sides. A small garden with flowering artichokes offers seating to enjoy a lunchtime picnic. And the views... oh, the views from that garden! It's a clear shot across acres of vineyards and Dry Creek Valley. A. Rafanelli is one of those rare wineries that checks all the boxes for me and has that long family history which can't be duplicated.
Open daily by appointment only. Must call!
Yes, I know... Smith-Madrone is in Napa County. But it's just over the county line and is quintessentially Old School. If you asked me for an authentic wine tasting experience, I would be remiss to not include them on any itinerary. They're the Deans of Old School.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, it's a long, twisty drive from either Santa Rosa or St. Helena to reach Smith-Madrone. Their low-key property is hidden between fancier neighbors like Pride Mountain, Barnett, and Schweiger. Walk around the property and you'll find magnificent views clear across Napa Valley.
Brothers Charlie and Stuart Smith, both pushing 70 years old, are a delightful throw-back. Their winemaking philosophy, not to mention the facilities, remains largely unchanged since the first vintage of 1977. Smith-Madrone is the definition of a small family operation: Stu manages the vineyard, Charlie makes the wine, and Stu's son Sam is assistant winemaker, the next generation to carry forward the legacy.
When you arrive for your appointment, you'll meet one of the brothers themselves in the vintage barn. Tastings are held in the shadows of the towering barrel stacks. There are no seats. There are no tasting notes. There are no charcuterie pairing plates. What you will get is an incredibly priceless time with a Napa winemaking legend and samples of their three wines (four, if you're lucky).
Smith-Madrone only produces Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth wine is a premium Cabernet called Cook's Flat Reserve which puts other Napa "Cult Cabs" to shame. Each of their wines fascinate me not just because they are good, but because they are approachable when young and supremely age-worthy. And their Cabernet, at around $50 a bottle, is a steal.
Smith-Madrone's Riesling is one of my all-time favorite white wines. Period. It has all the mouthwatering acidity and crisp fruit of American Rieslings, but also the rare Petrol fume character that punctuates superlative Alsatian or German Riesling. Smith-Madrone's version has all that complexity and elegance.
If you're too hip for Chardonnay, the vinous target of all mom jokes, you should rethink your stance. The Smith Brothers make an awesome Chardonnay, perfectly balanced with lush fruit, smooth body, and a precise amount of new oak. This isn't your mom's Tuesday night crutch.
Whether visiting Sonoma or Napa, you need to drive into the mountains for Smith-Madrone. You'll end your trip feeling like you've stumbled onto the best secret of your life.
Open by appointment, 11:00 or 2:00 M, W, F, Sat only.
Summit Lake Vineyards
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!
Jaffurs Wine Cellars
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.
Pride Mountain Vineyards
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.