A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to lead a group of long-time friends on a one day tour of Napa Valley wineries. I wanted to share examples of the many wine experiences Napa has to offer, but in just one day. It was a tall order with so many wine-derful choices. Here’s the strategy.
Napa wineries can be put in many categories, so these are the ones I chose. Old and unpretentious Napa, cutting-edge winemaking Napa, multi-generational winemaking Napa, and money is no object for my dream winery Napa. For good measure I tossed in lunch at one of Napa Valley’s top restaurants and a harvest party with an experienced winemaker with a new project. It was a lot for one day. This group may be grey, even so we were up to the wine-stained task.
Our day started in San Francisco on a clear crisp Friday morning. Knowing we’d be drinking sampling a lot of great wine, we employed a driver. Tom Cilluffo of Napa Valley Limousine Services arrived about 20 minutes before our scheduled 8am hotel pick-up in a brand new SUV, perfect for the five of us. We rode across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Sonoma Carneros wine growing region before hitting Napa. Tom, born and raised in Napa Valley, had a lot to offer about the history and people of Napa and Sonoma. The day was off to a great start.
Our first stop was a step back to 1970’s Napa at Smith-Madrone Winery after a narrow and winding yet picturesque drive up Spring Mountain. Napa Valley was not always the glitz and glamour statement it is today and Smith-Madrone is 1970’s Napa all the way. Nothing fancy, in fact the entire winemaking facility is housed in an old red barn. Stu and Charlie Smith founded the winery in 1971 on what is now a 200 acre vineyard/ranch, high above the valley floor. Curly, the winery spaniel, was the first to greet us. Then as we approached the barn door Charlie Smith, in his trimmed Santa Claus beard, stepped out and guided us to the crushpad showing off the pregnant vineyards, only yards away.
Our tasting was conducted in the barn amongst the barrels just like 40 years ago. Smith-Madrone only makes three wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and a dry Riesling, all from estate grown fruit. All are excellent and the Cabernet at $45 a bottle is one of the best values in the valley. The Smith-Madrone Riesling estate vineyard is one of only a few left in Napa and the wine pairs perfectly with lighter or spicy fare.
Both Stu and Charlie are engaging in a soft-spoken and very genuine kind of way. Stu waived a hello as he headed off to the vineyard for the next trailer of Riesling grapes being harvested. As we were leaving, Stu pulled around the winery in his old Suburban followed by a trailer full of Riesling grapes. Stu and Charlie demonstrated the whole de-stemming and crushing process while we climbed on the equipment for a better view. Our hands now sticky with sweet Riesling juice, we hated to leave.
After our unexpected harvest experience, we were running a bit late for our lunch in Yountville at Redd, home of Chef Richard Reddington. Tom, our driver, made the call to secure our reservation. Redd is an outstanding restaurant offering “a contemporary interpretation of Wine Country cuisine, one that references his own classic French training and incorporates a variety of ethnic influences, reflecting his (Chef Reddington) 15-year epicurean journey.” After a delicious lunch that included, duck confit, diver scallops and lamb meatballs among other treats, we were back on the road.
Our next stop was at Alpha Omega Winery, right off Hwy 29. AO’s winemaker Jean Hoefliger (formerly of Newton) is considered one of the most cutting edge and high-risk winemakers in Napa, partially because of his red wine barrel fermentation program where the wine left on its skins (maceration) for up to 90 days. Lots can go wrong with wine slowly fermenting over 90 days instead of the more traditional 12-20 days. The results however, are worth the risk.
We were greeted in the sleek tasting room by manger, Rick Patton. While Rick gave the guys a run down on the history of AO, Jean made a quick stop to shake hands. With Sauvignon Blanc awaiting him on the crushpad, Jean gave us a bit of his precious time before heading back to create the 2012 Sauv. Blanc. Rick escorted us past the stainless steel tanks, across the crushpad and upstairs to an elegant tasting room. We, to use Rick’s term, powered through the whites to get to the good stuff. While AO is known for their powerful Cabernets, their oaked and unoaked Chardonnays along with the Sauvignon Blanc should be given their due.
The lineup of red wines is impressive. Their Proprietary Red Blend is always a winner but the group was particularly fond of the single-vineyard Cabernets. We were able to taste a few limited production Cabs that are available to wine club members only. The experience ended with AO’s flagship wine ERA. “This wine is naturally fermented in open top barrels and is a blend of fruit from several award-winning, historic vineyards highlighting the exceptional diversity of Napa Valley terroir.” ERA is only available for those on the allocation list… If you’re serious about Napa Cabernets, get on the list.
Napa is home to some extraordinary wealth, some of which is invested in showpiece wineries. None is a bigger more impressive than the 121,000 square foot Italian medieval castle/winery known as Castello di Amorosa near Calistoga. The Castello opened in 2007 and is the dream-come-true for V. Sattui Winery owner Dario Sattui.
Our group was guided throughout castle and estate. This place is massive and even has a dungeon, complete with torture equipment. There is a beautiful small chapel where a traditional Latin Mass was held each Sunday until the Napa County Supervisors (in all their wisdom) decided the Castello had not applied for the proper permits to hold services. We found ourselves deep in the caves below the castle where we received an education on the art of barrel selection and the use of concrete fermentation tanks. Ultimately we were treated to a barrel tasting of a yet to be released Cabernet.
Our tour ended in the tasting room with Associate Winemaker, Peter Velleno. Peter’s youthful enthusiasm for the wines was infectious. The Castello offers a broad selection of superior wines at affordable prices. Some of our favorites were the Sangiovese, Ben Nacido Vineyard Chardonay, LA CASTELLANA Reserve, “Super Tuscan” Blend, Napa Valley and the flagship wine, IL BARONE Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley.
At this point, we headed toward the town of Napa for our multi-generational experience. Since it was getting near closing time for most wineries, I chose the John Anthony Vineyards tasting room in downtown Napa which stays open late into the evening. John Anthony Truchard is a son of Tony and Jo Ann Truchard of the renown Truchard Vineyards in nearby Carneros.
John was at a wine event in Las Vegas so were placed in the capable hands of tasting room manager, Dave Bryant in the Reserve Room. By this time our sampling had turned into full on wine drinking. After all, it was 6PM and one can only spit so much. Plus, who wants to spit out the wonderful JAV wines? We started with their Church Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, which I think is one of the best in the valley. The JAV winemaker is Rob Lloyd, formerly of Rombauer. Insider Tip: you can also taste the wines Rob makes under his small label Lloyd by Rob Lloyd. He only produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They both were big hits with my compatriots.
Then it was time to get into the big reds. JAV offers three unique Cabernets. One is a Napa blend, another from the Coombsville region and my personal favorite from Oak Knoll in central Napa. These are all three beautifully made with great structure and complexity. Artisan cheeses were paired with the wines with a delicious result.
No trip to Napa Valley in September is complete without attending a Harvest party. It was a long and rewarding day of wine drinking sampling, so luckily we only had to saunter across the street to the new winery tasting room for pureCru Napa Valley. pureCru is a new artisan winemaking project for 30 year Napa winemaking veteran Mitch Cosentino. “I had been reminiscing about a small, hands-on entity where I could do it all myself again, like I did in the beginning,” says Mitch.
The party was full of local wine lovers and winemakers alike. We didn’t get to taste many of the Pure Cru wines, but were very impressed with the easy-drinking Sangio Vetta, a blend of Sangiovese with small portions of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. A smooth red with a spicy kick and only $28.
The excitement of the Harvest party was the perfect ending to our one day Napa Valley wine adventure. Fortunately, Tom was waiting for us, as driving would have been out of the question. On second thought, if Tom had forgotten about us, we could have found a place to crash and gotten up and done it again…. We’re young enough for that…right guys?