Spring is here in the Napa Valley, the sun is warm, and many of the vines are alive with recent bud break. It is a very enjoyable time to travel to the Napa Valley. Not only does spring bring tourists to the Valley but other creatures as well. We had just finished tasting some delicious Buehler wines and were on our way to the terrace to enjoy a picnic lunch. There it was basking in the beautiful sunshine, a rather long and ominous looking rattlesnake. John Page Buehler was the first to alert us and then quickly raced into the tasting room and returned with a shovel. Page with his handy long shovel was able to corral the snake and move it away from the picnic area. What a man!
A small group of wine bloggers were invited by the Wine Hiker, Russ Beebe, to a tour and tasting at two well-known and famous Napa wineries. We met at Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain and then went back down to the Valley floor for an exquisite lunch and tasting at Spottswoode in St. Helena. Visiting Smith-Madrone is always a kick because the Smith Brothers are so laid back and unpretentious. They both make you feel like you are an old friend. I have blogged previously about Smith-Madrone so if you want to know more about them read this post.
This was my first time to visit Spottswoode and to taste their wine. Spottswoode is all about Cabernet Sauvignon, not your ordinary Cab but one to be shared with family and friends for special meals and celebrations. The wine is some of the best Cabernet I have tasted in recent memory. The story began when Mary Novak and her late husband Dr. Jack Novak purchased the property in 1972. The vineyards behind their 1882 Victorian house consisted of a field blend of French Colombard, Gamay, and Syrah, all purchased in those days by Gallo. The Novaks ripped out the vineyards and replanted them with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. When phylloxera hit, all the vines were gradually replanted beginning in 1988. Originally, the Novaks sold all their Cab grapes and the word was out in the Napa Valley that these grapes were truly special.
Cathy Corison is one of Napa Valley’s first women winemakers and is well recognized by her colleagues as one of the more influential winemakers in the entire Valley. Her Corison Cabernet wines have long been noted for their quality and character. We visited with Cathy at her wonderful winery and vineyards in St. Helena.
We have long been admirers of the barn that houses the Corison Winery. The best view is during Mustard season. The vibrant colors set against the grey siding and the green roof make for an awesome view and a photographer’s delight. The barn is set back from Highway 29 and easy to miss. As one drives along Highway 29, by the time you catch a glimpse and are intrigued by the building it is too late; you have driven past the entrance. By all means turn back at the next chance and pay a visit to Corison Winery. It is traditional Napa Valley.
Boeschen Vineyards is a very small winery located on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. Case production is just a mere 375 cases of wine of just two types, a Bordeaux blend and a Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at $60 and $75. This year the winery will try its hand at a third wine, a Sauvignon Blanc but case production will just hover around 400. Like many small boutique wineries that make high-end wines, one has to wonder if it is possible to make a go of it in this economy. We have already seen a few wineries of this type up for sale or on the brink of financial disaster.
Last week I visited three family-owned wineries that produce quality wines at the upper end of the price spectrum. I would recommend a visit to any three of these wineries and I am quite positive your experience will be memorable. This is the first of three blog posts on these wineries. I’ll start with Swanson Vineyards and follow this up with posts on Boeschen Vineyards and Corison Winery.
Swanson Vineyards is the most formal and elegant of the three wineries. The winery is hidden from tourists on Manley Lane, a small road that is off Highway 29 just north of Oakville. Almost all the clientele at Swanson is by word of mouth, and that provides enough visitors and wine buyers to make the winery about as busy as it wants to be. The tasting room, or salon as they call it, is open by appointment only on Wednesday through Sunday. There is a small adjacent tasting room for drop-ins, but the winery’s preferred way to taste their wines is for visitors to select one of the two sets of wine and food pairings. As you can see from the photo, the salon is wonderfully decorated and an exquisite place to experience the Swanson wines. We don’t do many of these formal food and wine pairings, but once in awhile, it is nice to give yourself a treat. We did the Harvey Tasting that features a tasting of six wines. We were greeted in the garden outside the salon with a glass of the 08 Swanson Rosato, a very dry RosÃ© wine, and we sipped that while we waited for the other guests to arrive for the 11am seating.
August 13, 2009
When we visited Argentina in March of this year, we were amazed at the number of new wineries and more amazed at their magnificence. It seemed no expenses were spared in creating architectural wonders, luxurious gardens, and winemaking rooms with the latest high-tech winemaking equipment. These wineries were created to dazzle and to make the finest wine possible. Two examples of these Argentine wineries are Bodega Salentein and Bodega Andeluna. Both of these wineries are spectacular in every aspect and owned by very rich men.
A couple of week ago, at a wine blogger conference, the bus that I was assigned took us to a winery that I had never heard have before, Palmaz Vineyards. It’s located east of Napa at the southern end of the Vaca Mountains at the foot of Mount St. George. Once I saw the winery from the outside, I almost felt like I was back in Argentina. It was similar in character to the new wineries I’d visited there. This is a winery where no expense has been spared. It is truly a marvelous wonder.
The owners as it turns out are from Argentina, Julio and Amalia Palmaz. Julio is the M.D. that developed the stent device used in Angioplasty. Their son Christian runs the winery operation, and their daughter Florence is the marketing director. It was Florence that greeted us and took us on a short tour and gave us these details. The winery has four levels but so big that the entire winery is equal in size to an 18-story building. It took 6 years to build the winery so that should give you an idea of the details and cost of building this facility. The vineyards are planted at 400, 1200, and 1400 ft elevations. The vineyards are predominately Cabernet Sauvignon, and three Bordeaux varieties of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petite Verdot are used to blend with the Cabernet Sauvignon. There is some Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, and Riesling that is sold only at the winery and is made in very small amounts. Curiously, the Riesling is called Johannesburg Riesling. I was told once by winemaker Stu Smith that there is no such grape, “It’s just plain Riesling.”
If you want to visit this winery, it is open by appointment only and the cost is $60 per person for a tour and tasting. This winery is for the high-end wine consumer. The Cabernets starts at $100 per bottle and if the white wines are available they are priced at $45. The only wine we were able to taste was the $100 Cabernet. Unfortunately, I am not able to judge or say anything about this wine. There were about 18 wine bloggers and because of the logistics we sat outside on a hot but beautiful terrace to hear three speakers and taste three wines (the other two were from Viader Vineyards and Madonna Estate). By the time we sat and were able to taste, the sun had brought the wine temperatures too warm to evaluate. What a disappointment!
My final thoughts as I left the winery were the same as Salentine and Andeluna in Argentina. Is it possible for theses wineries to make a profit selling wine? Here at Palmaz they make so little wine that it does not seem possible. Is this just a rich man’s hobby?
If you are heading up to the popular Hess Collection Winery on Mt. Veeder, I have a recommendation. Before you visit Hess, take a small detour and stop in at the vineyard home of Rubissow Winery. Although Rubissow wines have been around for several years hardly anyone but a few have ever tasted Rubissow wines, and even fewer have visited their home base on Mt. Veeder. If you like adventure and something very different in the Napa Valley, schedule an appointment to view some of the most beautiful vineyards in all of Napa and taste some very exquisite wines.
If you are headed to the Napa Valley during this time of the year, it is important to strategize how to avoid the crowds, otherwise your trip might end up be more stressful than relaxing. One easy way is to avoid the crowds is to visit some of the lesser-known wineries and ones that are off the beaten path. Two such wineries that fit the bill are Havens and Elyse wineries, both located near each other on Hoffman Lane in Yountville.
Take the Yountville exit from Highway 29 and head towards Domain Chandon. Domain Chandon is one of our favorite wineries but the weekend crowds here are just too much to bear. Take a left and head down Solano Ave., the road that parallels Highway 29, until you reach Hoffman Lane. Turn down Hoffman Lane. Havens is on the left and just beyond to the right is Elyse Winery. Both wineries are small and make absolutely fantastic wines.
PiÃ±a is a little tiny winery on the Silverado Trail located about a mile north of Oakville Cross Road. We would never have discovered this winery were it not for a free tasting coupon we found at the Visitor Center in Napa. The owners of the winery are the four PiÃ±a Brothers. The winery is not their main business, as they are better known in the Valley for their vineyard management skills. Their vineyard management company has an impressive list of clients that includes Pahlmeyer, Cafaro, and Showket to name a few.
The most delightful characteristic of this family-owned winery is the very casual atmosphere that permeates the winery. Our host on that day was Clair Palmer, a retired agricultural chemist and wine lover. Clair is waiting by the doorway “Welcome to PiÃ±a, this is how Napa Valley used to be,” he exclaims. Everything is all in one room, barrels, equipment, and a makeshift bar for tasting.
Mike Chelini began making wine at Stony Hill Vineyard in 1972 and has never looked back. Mike is one of Napa’s old guard, a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S.,* and a throwback to another time and era in the Napa Valley’s wine history. I visited Mike Chelini with my friend Mike Beltran, who was working retail for a San Francisco wine shop many years ago when he’d first met Mike Chelini. If you want stories about the Napa Valley, then Mike Chelini is the man. I heard at least a dozen good ones as Mike and Mike reminisced about the old days of the Napa Valley.
In a sense, things at Stony Hill are about the old days. There is nothing fancy here that smacks of modern innovation in the wine world. In the winemaking room, you won’t find a cutting-edge crush machine or jacketed, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks or rows of brand new barrels. Quite the contrary, everywhere you turn, the winery has that old-fashioned look. Mike Chelini keeps track of all his winemaking data in a notebook. Why use the computer when a notebook has worked just fine over the past 36 years?
One thing that is new at Stony Hill is Cabernet Sauvignon. Three years ago, the winery ripped out an old vineyard and replanted the plot with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Cabernet Vines on the sunniest location of the Spring Mountain property. It won’t be a while until the vines are ready for a robust harvest, but you can expect the Cabernet to be in the style that has given Stony Hill wines its reputation for producing food friendly and easy drinking wines.
Chardonnay has long been the flagship wine for Stony Hill. The wine is aged in neutral oak and without malolactic fermentation. These wines are quite the opposite of much of the Chardonnay favored these days, buttery and creamy on the mouth and full of oak. The winery has a huge following for this Chardonnay and their other white wines, a dry Riesling, and a Gewurztraminer. Their mailing list has grown so sufficiently over the years that they are able to sell much of their wines to those on the list.
The winery is one of Napa Valley’s hidden gems and certainly one where you can avoid the crowds that are typical along Highway 29. To visit Stony Hill make an appointment and then travel on Highway 29 north past St. Helena. Turn left at Bale Grist Historic State Park entrance. Continue on the road that leads up the mountain. The road is narrow and the signs quite small, so pay careful attention. Bring a camera for some beautiful views of the Valley and the Stony Hill Vineyards. The wine tasting is in the home of Peter and Wellinda McCrea. Peter is son of the founders of Stony Hill, Fred and Eleanor McCrea. On your way out ask about taking a look at the winery, and you will likely meet up with winemaker Mike Chelini, a legend in his own time.
* G.O.N.A.D.S. stands for the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society. The GONADS are a somewhat exclusive group of Napa Valley vintners who have been getting together monthly for lunch since the early 1980’s. Reportedly there are 12 members, including Mike Chelini, Bob Trinchero, Koerner Rombauer, Stu Smith (Smith-Madrone), Dan Duckhorn and Carl Doumani (Quixote Winery). According to sources, these lunches can be a rather ruckus affair. To become a member of the G.O.N.A.D.S., you have to be invited to one of the lunches. Being invited back means you’re in.