My last post was about Napa Valley wine prices in 1970 so I thought it might be fun to try and describe what the Napa Valley was like back then. Our first trip to the Napa Valley was in 1968. We were newly married and just a mere 25 years old. I had actually been there once as a teenager but of course could not have cared much about visiting wineries. We owe our interest in wine and wine country traveling to my brother-in-law and to a teaching colleague who were both 12 years our senior. Both of these individuals introduced us to wine and we traveled often with these folks to the wine country. My guide back then to wine country was the first edition of Sunset Magazine’s California Wine Country. It was published in 1968 and was priced at a whopping $1.95.
My friend Mike Beltran has been collecting wines for 40 years. His collection is dwindling because he sells or trades most of his older wines. A couple of months ago while searching in the deepest and darkest part of his cellar he finds a bottle of 1959 Inglenook Charbono. Anything Inglenook prior to 1964 is special. For those not familiar, Inglenook was the premiere winery of California up to 1964. Its 1941 Cabernet Sauvignon was listed in Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the century with a 100-point rating. John Daniel Jr. was the winemaker and ran the winery during its heyday when suddenly and tragically he sold Inglenook in 1964 to Allied Grape Growers, essentially a jug wine producer. From there is was downhill for the Inglenook label. In 1975 Francis Ford Coppola purchased the old Inglenook winery and vineyards and today it’s called Rubicon Estates. The Inglenook name is still in the hands of a big conglomermate wine company but the majestic mansion, surrounding vineyards, and the wines made are once again magnificent.
Alert to U.C. Davis and Fresno State University wine schools, you have a major competitor in the Napa Valley Community College. NVCC is not only situated in one of the world’s most renowned wine regions, but how about those course fees! The Napa college is the first community college in California to have a bonded winery and students can participate in every phase of winemaking, including growing grapes and the selling and marketing of wine. This November the college will release and sell its first vintages of wines, a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
Dr. Stephen Krebs is the head of the Viticulture and Winery Technology instructional program at the Napa Valley College and is the driving force behind a ten-year effort by the college to raise funds and meet the difficult legal requirements to become a bonded winery. The first vintage will yield some 350 cases of wine and the college will be able to legally make as many as 1000 cases of wine. The college currently has six acres of vineyards on the campus. The Napa Valley Vintners Association, Trefethen Family Foundation, Gasser Foundation, Doud Foundation and many others have made significant contributions towards the development of the operation of the wine programs.
We are back from our three-week jaunt in Argentina and Chile. We visited several wineries and had plenty of wine to drink with both our lunch and dinner meals. When we met and chatted with Americans in Argentina and Chile, we were invariably asked the question, “How do Argentine (or Chilean) wines compare with those of the Napa Valley?” Our answer would come without hesitation: “The premium wines of Argentina and Chile are as good as any wines we’ve tasted from the Napa Valley.” These are quality wines with great structure and flavors and what we are talking about is the shear enjoyment of a wine. When you taste a well-made Argentine or Chilean wine you can appreciate it just as much as a good Napa Valley wine. But one thing for sure, as I have pointed out previously, the big advantage for Argentine and Chilean wines is the price. A very good Malbec from Argentina or Carmenere from Chile is in the $10 to $20 range.
Well, not in Napa Valley but in Argentina and in other parts of the southern hemisphere. We are in the Mendoza wine country of Argentina where the harvest has been taking place since the beginning of February and will continue through April. We were fortunate to see harvesters working the vineyards at two wineries we visited, and we also had a very nice chat with a small vineyard owner who explained in detail the way harvest works in Argentina.
The crew consists of workers from the northern part of Argentina who spend the entire agricultural season traveling from crop to crop. For the wine industry, crews can be hired from an agency or as individuals. When a winery uses an agency, they pay the agency a fee and pay each worker by the amount he or she picks. Smaller wineries may have their own crew that they hire individually. These workers are also paid by each bin they fill. There are no unions, so all the workers can do is walk off a job to try and negotiate a better rate with the winery.
When you think of big wine companies or conglomerates in the Napa Valley, most likely Trinchero Family Wines would not be your first thought. Yet this family-owned winery, with Bob Trinchero as the patriarch, has been steadily gaining ground in the California wine scene and especially in the Napa Valley. Within the past couple of years, Trinchero has acquired Folie a Deux winery and Napa Cellars. These two wineries share a tasting room in Yountville on Highway 29 right next to Mustard’s Restaurant. Folie a Deux’s original winery location and tasting room is now the site of the Trinchero Napa Winery. At this location, Trinchero is building a 20-million-dollar winery complex that will rival that of any winery in the Napa Valley. It is sure to be a favorite visitor attraction.
The 16th annual Mustard Festival began in earnest on January 31 and will run through March 28th with various events. The idea behind the Mustard Festival is to promote tourism in the Napa Valley during the “quiet” time of the year. The weather is always iffy and the vines are all dormant, so tourists tend to stay away during these winter months. In April bud break occurs and spring flowers awake, and once again all is right in the world of the Napa Valley.
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.
We visited three Napa Valley family-owned wineries in succession recently and found them to be vastly different from one another in several ways. We visited William Hill Estate, Salvestrin Winery, and Hopper Creek Vineyard. Our excursion prompted us to ponder the concept of the Family winery. What does the term really mean to the average consumer or visitor to wine country? Based on our visit to these wineries and thinking about other wineries that brand themselves as family-owned, we came up with four different categories for family-owned wineries.
With redevelopment projects along the Napa River and the buzz created by the Oxbow Market, you would think that all is joy among Napa businesses, restaurants, and lodging establishments. Not so. The last few weeks have not brought good news to the city of Napa.
Copia continues to have its share of financial problems. Copia recently announced layoffs and surprisingly their winter hours leave Copia open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Copia store and Julie’s Kitchen restaurant remain open on a daily basis. We stated in a blog post a year ago that on our last visit to Copia we felt that the exhibits were sparse and not very compelling. The most interesting area to us was the vegetable garden and now we hear that the garden plot might be up for sale to shore up Copia’s financing. You would think that with the addition of the Oxbow Market next door, Copia would see an increase in visitors. Apparently, that has not happened.