This is a guest article on the Wine Country Getaways’ Blog by Melanie Schwartz, the founder of Booker & Butler Napa and Sonoma Concierge Services. We receive many emails throughout the year asking us for tour guide recommendations. Since we do not use tour guides, we hesitate to make recommendations. A better alternative for us is to have tour companies like Booker & Butler tell us about their services through these blog posts:
I own and run a private concierge business called Booker & Butler that creates custom itineraries for discerning clients in Napa and Sonoma Wine Country. One of my favorite aspects of the job is discovery. Last time I counted there were some 600-plus wineries between Napa and Sonoma. They run the gamut from boutique to behemoth. Some are known for their varietal focus, some for their hospitality, and others for their spectacular vistas. Visiting these wineries has taken me from the valley floor to the highest peaks. Often, the best experiences have been well off the beaten path. I’ve visited wineries whose production is so small every drop of it is allocated to their mailing list. So small that sometimes they don’t even have a bottle to sell at a tasting. I’ve also visited properties that are more residence than business. Where I’ve sat in the owner’s kitchen or living room and whiled away the afternoon. Many of these places are unsigned and impossible to find on your own. The owners don’t want folks showing up on their doorstep so they do everything they can to screen guests and limit the number of visitors they take. Having a personal connection is key to getting in. So when Joe & Janelle asked me to write a guest post, I figured these were the sort of places their readers would be most interested in. With that as an introduction, here are a few special places in and around St. Helena that I had the privilege of visiting recently . . .
The definition of the word “anomaly” is something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. It also aptly describes the beginnings of this small, family-run winery in St Helena. The owners left their corporate lives in Berkeley for this quaint residential neighborhood on the west side of town. The property had a modest house and a quarter acre under vine – a mere six rows. At the time they didn’t plan to do anything with the vines other than enjoy them as landscaping. It wasn’t until a neighbor dropped by and explained to them just how extraordinary the soil and the vines were that they dipped their toe into winemaking. With a book borrowed from the local library and rudimentary equipment purchased from a local supplier, they made their first vintage. That was 1997. Over the years they had the good fortune to buy another vineyard contiguous to their property. They now have 8¼ acres of vines planted mostly to Cabernet. The farming is all-organic and feels almost garden-like. Everything is perfectly manicured. The wines are made on-premise in a 26 foot by 26 foot stone building. They say it’s the second smallest production facility in all of Napa. After our tour around the vineyards, we went down into the cellar under the winery for our tasting. Genevieve, my very friendly host, tasted me through 3 vintages of their superb Cab, from 2010, 2011 and 2012. I loved them all but savored the 2010 which I was lucky enough to leave with a bottle of, which I will definitely be laying down for a special occasion.
Art, antiques, automobiles, polo ponies. There are all kinds of collections to be found among the smaller, high-end wineries. And many owners have put their prized objects on display for guests to peruse while they sip and spit. But while wine-and-art may be as common as wine-and-cheese, nothing compares to the collection I recently viewed at Seven Stones, a private winery and residence owned by Ron and Anita Wornick. Seven Stones is up the hill from Meadowood Resort. In fact, you pass through the resort gates where a guard assesses your admissibility and helps you navigate your way to the top of the hill overlooking the valley. The property consists of 45 acres with 3.5 acres planted to Cabernet and Cabernet Franc. But it’s not the vines that capture your attention, it’s the extraordinary outdoor sculptures, most prominently, Richard Deutsch’s “Seven Stones” for which the winery is named. The piece is at once massive and delicate, suggesting ancient ruins or perhaps the forces of nature. Either way, you can’t help but want to touch it and feel its tension. Another breathtaking piece is “Desert Dreamer” by David Phelps, a bronze sculpture that looks like dry cracked mud, evocative of the desert environment. The statue appears to be partly submerged to where you can’t quite tell if it’s embedded in the ground or rising up from it.
Ron and Anita aren’t just collectors but artists in their own right. Ron is an accomplished woodworker and together their passion for art has created one of the premier contemporary craft collections in the world. One that has been on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, American Craft Museum in New York, the Oakland Museum of California, and the McAllen Museum in South Texas. The art isn’t the only thing of beauty here; the gardens are impossibly lush. In fact, the estate employs more landscapers than they do winery workers. Of course, when your yields are as low as Seven Stones – a maximum of 450 cases per vintage – the number of hands matters less than the person guiding them. Here that person is Aaron Pott whose accomplishments include stints at Troplong Mondont and Château La Tour Figeac in Saint-Emilion before a three-year turn at Quintessa here in Napa Valley. In addition to his own label, Aaron consults for Bello Family, Blackbird, Fisher, Jericho Canyon, Perliss, Quixote, and St. Helena Estate. Much awarded and much in demand, Aaron was Food & Wine magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2012.
MARSTON FAMILY VINEYARD
At the end of White Sulphur Springs Road in west St. Helena, past the old White Sulphur Springs Resort, now the Hoffman Institute, the road ends at an old stone columned gate. I entered the gate code and followed a long windy narrow road up part of Spring Mountain. At the top, I met Elizabeth Marston and her yellow lab Tucker. Elizabeth manages the family winery; her parents bought the ranch in 1969. The vineyards on this 550-acre property were first planted in 1890, now there are 50 acres planted only with Cabernet. We toured the property as she told me some of the fascinating history, including stories about the previous owner, Al Menasco, who bought it after WWII. Clark Gable was a friend and frequent guest and even spent his honeymoon at the guest cottage. Elizabeth then took me into the old horse barn built in the 1950’s, which currently retains some of its original charm but has been remodeled as the cottage where tastings are held. Thomas Keller prepared the celebration dinner here for their inaugural vintage. From here we sat down for my tasting under a patio with French inspired décor and an original horse water trough used as a fountain, I felt like I was somewhere on the French countryside. With a beautiful arrangement of paired cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, Elizabeth and I chatted…I could have stayed all afternoon. We first tasted the Albion, a Sauvignon Blanc named for her grandfather. The wine smelled of jasmine and pears and was lively and refreshing to drink. Then we tasted their estate Cabernet which reminded me of currants and cassis. And finally I got to sample a limited edition Marston label known as elizabethjohn. The wine is made in small lots – eight barrels in 2010 – sourced from the family vineyard as well as other favorites from the valley. This one showed white pepper and a mineral quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The vibrant history in these vineyards and old world way combined with modern styles of today, make for sophisticated, yet approachable wines that you would drink with a friend. As I did with my new friend Elizabeth.