The drive north of Calistoga along the Old Lawley Toll Road toward Jericho Canyon Vineyard really feels like undiscovered Napa. Even with a GPS the tiny entrance is easy to miss. We arrived on a sunny Sunday morning and were greeted by Paul, the winery mechanic (really, that’s his title) as he walked from his tomato garden. He pointed down the dirt road around the modest home, once occupied by the whole Bleecher clan, but now the abode of son, Nick. We came to a red barn which serves as both a tasting room and the façade to their remarkable wine caves.
Here we were greeted by second generation vintner Nick Bleecher and Tara Hole. The experience to be had at Jericho Canyon other that their blockbuster wines, is the Polaris Tour and tasting ($75). With Nick and Tara we jumped into a Polaris 4-wheeler for a truly unique tour along the steep vineyard trails of Jericho Canyon Vineyard. With 40 acres planted on the 140 acre site before the restrictive 1991 Hillside Ordinance, the vineyards cling to the steep hillsides and offer spectacular views. The tour is an education in vineyard management and winegrowing with plenty of fun thrown in. Be sure to bring a camera for the hillside vineyards and vista shots of the Palisades and Mt. St. Helena. Check out the photo gallery.
As we rode from one side of the canyon to the other we were greeted by winery owners, Dale and Marla Bleecher. Their home sits atop the canyon with a panoramic view. Instead of taking the road, they took the more direct route to the winery…an ATV through the vineyards. Meeting Dale and Marla was like reuniting with two old friends. Their easy and unassuming manner gives the whole experience the “old Napa” feel we had hoped to find.
After three years of searching for the perfect site, in 1989 the Bleechers saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign for the the 140 acre former cattle ranch. The owner, reluctant to sell her beautiful ranch, backed out of the original contract. Certain it was the perfect setting, Marla and Dale patiently waited until the elderly owner was ready to part with this special spot. During early explorations of the property, evidence of pre-prohibition vineyards was discovered. Today the vineyards produce highly prized Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah.
After touring the oak-shaded ponds and vineyards along both sides of Jericho Canyon we were treated to a tasting deep within their wine caves. Wines from these vineyards first hit the radar screen with high scores by Rudd Estate (1998 RP – 95) and later winemaker David Ramey (2001 WS – 94). 2006 was a watershed year for Jericho Canyon Vineyards. This marked the completion of their wine caves and red barn winery. Since 2006 all wines have been made on site and the 90+ scores have continued.
In addition to the Bleecher family, the current winemaking team includes winemaker Aaron Pott and famed international consultant Michel Roland. Dale explained that this team works to bring out the unique terroir and flavors offered by the vines clinging to the canyons terraced sides.
Personally, we found the current release wines to be exceptional. On the warm late summer day of our visit, we started with the refreshingly crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Later in the caves we were treated to a vertical tasting of estate Cabernet Sauvignon. These are richly layered wines that command your attention. With an hour or so of decanting these exquisite wines can be enjoyed today or cellared for many years to come.
For those looking for a unique vineyard experience combined with exceptional wines, Jericho Canyon is not to be missed. However, due to the intimate nature of the tour and tasting, reservations are restricted. Please contact Jericho Canyon Vineyards in advance to make your reservation.