Fine Wine Finds in Feb!

There’s lots to catch up, especially as I am starting to write this entry on March 10!  The focus of this blog will be on the fine wines sampled in February.   First, let’s start with some statistics (as we have really started to keep track of the # of wineries visited – our wine maps are filling up with ‘red dots’ and the # of wines purchased)

February statistics = 17 wineries
Jan wineries = 13
Grand total as of 2/28 = 30 wineries

We are ramping up the effort even more in March so stay tuned for our first entry of the month!

Tues 2/3 – No wineries visited today as we attempted a tasting too late in the day at Louis Martini.  We found ourselves in the parking lot of Dean & Deluca and decided to check it out.  We are so glad we did as the store is chock full of Napa wines galore, including some cult/cult’ish wines such as Hundred Acre, Colgin, and Araujo.  They also had many boutique wines recommended to us by friends and wine experts.  We had a great visit with the wine manager Beth (who is from Chicago too) who offered to host a tasting for us at the store.  We have yet to take her up on her offer but we definitely will!

Wed 2/4

Lava Line (Calistoga)

One of our last stops on our Calistoga Winter Wine Passport program, we were greeted by chickens out front and ducks out back!  The atmosphere was very laid back and relaxed – the tasting was in a converted barn building, half was dedicated to tasting, the other half was a stage/small music hall where the owners like to perform.  Really LOVED the petite sirah and bought a bottle!  There was a cool old truck sculpture next door that we checked out as well.

Madrigal Family Winery (Calistoga)

Enjoyed our tasting outside on a beautiful sunny day, talked about real estate, metals, and the markets with the young friendly attendant,  The original founders emigrated from Mexico and were one of the first Mexican families to settle in the upper Napa valley.  The current third generation owners live on the property and are proud owners of a little dog with a big bark!

Thurs 2/5 – Sat 2/7 – see the earlier post in February for more details.

Thurs 2/12

Hall (St Helena valley)

We braved Main St/Rt 29 and walked to Hall.  Highlights include:

  • Hall is hallmarked by the huge stainless steel rabbit sculpture at the entrance – a driver told us it came with a $5 million price tag!
  • The grounds and building contained a variety of modern art – sculptures, painting, etc.  The best art story was that of the artwork used on their Masterpiece wine – it was modeled after a finger painting Halls President’s son did when he was a year and a half!
  • The owner Kathryn Hall was former ambassador to Austria, where she promoted American wine
  • Hall had a very modern and cool tasting room and a gorgeous view off their patio
  • Wine highlights – some of the best cabernets we’ve had and a few custom blends that were delicious as well (Jack’s Masterpiece and Darwin), enjoyed a pinot from a vineyard near Santa Barbara (I think a Santa Barbara wine tour may be in order!)
  • You can buy their Napa Valley Cabernet in Mariano’s – just saw it in Chicago!
  • Hall offers $1 shipping for an order of 6 bottles or more
  • This is a place to consider joining with quality wines and a great place to visit
  • Family-friendly – we may take the Lunns there!

Next up was Louis Martini across the street:

I’ve always liked the widely-available Louis Martini cabernet and Dave and I were even more interested in visiting after seeing the huge number of Louis Martini vintages and reserve wines on the menu at Press.

  • The story of the founder is an inspiring one of perseverance and dedication.  Louis Martini moved to the US from Genoa, Italy in 1899, attempted to make wine from his apartment in San Francisco.  He failed miserably and was sent back to Italy by his father to attend wine school.  He returned about 5 years later to a successful wine-making career and during Prohibition retooled the winery into one that made sacramental wine and grape concentrate for home wine makers (the only two types of wine businesses permitted by the government.)  In 1933 the St Helena winery was built and is now run by Michael Martini (3rd generation.)
  • Enjoyed a 2:1 Napa Neighbor discount on their reserve tasting
  • Family-friendly
  • Really enjoyed the petite sirah and the Lot 1 reserve cab; not as crazy about their Cab Franc

Fri 2/13

Ladera (Howell Mountain)

  • We visited Ladera on the recommendation of our attendant at Twomey (he has made some great ones)
  • Ladera means hillside or slope in Spanish, they produce about 15K cases/yr., first vintage was in 1998 with the estate vineyards dating back to the late 1800s, Ladera was the first to plant sauvignon blanc on Howell Mountain in ‘cold pocket’ lots
  • Howell Mountain hillside location – volcanic soils that are rich in minerals & low in nutrients, soil brings natural stress to the vines which result in smaller more intensely flavored berries than in the valley, cooler temps than on the valley floor, more consistent sun (especially later in the year), good drainageOld winery building built in the late 1800s by Chinese workers brought to CA to cut train tracks through the Sierra Nevadas.
  • Gravity flow has always been used at this winery and still is – many smaller quality wineries in Napa (including Vineyard 29 and Chappellet) use gravity instead of pumps in their winemaking.  Here’s a quick overview:

Since each floor of the 3-level winery had its own ground level entrance, grapes could be brought by wagon to the top level for crushing, allowed to flow by gravity to the middle level for fermenting, then to the bottom floor for barrel storage. They saved not only the costs of pumps, they saved their wine from the damage pumping can cause. When crushed fruit is pumped, grapes and stems can be broken and undesirable tannins released into the juice and resulting wine. After fermentation, gravity-flow introduces less air and is more effective at separating the solids from the clear wine.

    • Grapes are harvested early in the morning to ensure that they are cool and intact when they reach the winery
    • A variety of fermentation tanks are used to provide an ideal skin-to-juice ratio
    • Sat outside in the sun enjoying the wine including a Pinot Noir from southwest of Sebastopol (Merry Edwards & Paul Hobbs location) with free run juice, not pressed and the High Plateau Cab from Diamond Mountain (1200 ft, not as much sun, evergreens)
    • Attendant Julie from Dallas turned us onto the Cioppino night at Tra Vigne, Bodega Bay for Dungeness crab, Maisonry in Yountville, Vintner Collective in Napa, Heitz Winery, Jericho Canyon
    • New wine term alert!  Brix levels:  sugar levels in the wine

Cade (Howell Mountain)

  • Also located on the famed Howell Mountain and with some of the most beautiful mountain side views ever!
  • Cade means barrel, founded in 2009, 1800 ft elevation
  • Winemaker also interesting enough is also highly focused on barrels – cabernet is aged primarily in new barrels and they use a variety of barrel manufacturers
  • Sister wineries include Plumpjack (1st screwtop on $100+ cabs) and Odette (received a perfect 100 on their reserve cab from Robert Parker)
  • Liked Cade but enjoyed Odette more!  Odette is meant to be more feminine than Cade, refers to characters in Shakespeare and Proust’s writing as well as in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In the wine world, Odette was the name of one of the French judges of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 where a red wine from Stags Leap District beat out the French competition to take top honors.  Dave and I were wondering what wine she voted for…hmmm….
  • Learned about how Mondavi really worked hard to preserve the Napa area as an agricultural community and not go totally corporate and get over-developed – Dave and I thought that was so cool, especially since his winery is such a behemoth!
  • Wine production knowledge gained:  Tanks are heated up during fermentation to remove the skins, and skins provide tannins (imparts complexity, a dry/astringent taste, and assists with aging) and color
  • We met a couple who traveled from Alaska for a long weekend – talk about weekend warriors!
  • Attendant recommended Kirkland wine for cooking – made by a good wine maker in Napa in the Stags Leap AVA / district
  • You can buy the 2013 Cade Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and the Napa Valley Cab in restaurants and retail

Sat 2/14 – Happy Valentine’s Day!

A special treat from Dave!


followed by a day of highly-recommended wine tastings over in Sonoma!

VJB (Sonoma)

    • Thanks to PK and Sheila for the recommendation!
    • Belmonte Family started with an Italian restaurant in Santa Rosa, they started to make their own wine to sell at the restaurant
    • The food & wine theme is strong at their winery which offers a full deli, pizzeria, and a nice large patio to soak in the sun
    • Vibrant, busy, reminded me of V. Sattui on a smaller scale
    • Purchased Prosecco and Nebbiolo
    • You  can only buy their wines at the winery and through their wine club

      Hanzell (Sonoma)

  • Thanks to Joe for the recommendation!
  • Very well-known for their chardonnays
  • Winery owner Zellerbach was involved in the design of the Marshall Plan and later appointed by Eisenhower as the Ambassador to Italy. He spent time exploring Burgundy and it inspired him to make world-class wines at his Sonoma property.
  • Name of the winery – combination of his wife’s first name Hana with his last name of Zellerbach – Hanzell
  • 200 acres – 12 Pinot, 32 Chardonnay and only 2 to Cabernet, ~10K cases produced overall
  • The tour was unique – started with a ride in the Range Rover over to the highest point in the vineyard – weather was so clear you could see straight through from our Sonoma location to San Francisco!  We then toured their caves, and then into their ‘tasting’ building which had an impressive room chock full of old vintages and large-format bottles.  The second floor had a lovely view of the vineyards and Sonoma valley.
  • Tasted 2 chards and a pinot – smaller tasting than other wineries
  • We learned that Hanzell Chardonnays age extremely well – where many white wines are meant to be enjoyed right away, Hanzells can easily be aged for 10 years, even more!  This could be due to when their grapes are harvested and the acidity of the grape which directly impacts how long you can age it.
  • Other Hanzell secrets of success: Chardonnays get 6-8 hours of skin contact before they press the grapes – most wineries don’t give any skin contact.  They always decant, and sometimes double-decant Chardonnays for several hours before pouring (our guy decanted our wines hours before our visit.)
  • Our attendant recommended Kamen in Sonoma, Hawkes in Alexander Valley, Sigh (bubbles)
  • More wine knowledge gained: Large format bottles able to blend flavors smoothly


In between wine tasting we visited downtown Sonoma for some ice cream, shopping, and touring around, including checking out the Sonoma Barracks:

  • Adobe building built by order of Lt Vallejo to house Mexican soldiers transferred from the Presidio in 1835
  • In June 1846 the barracks were taken over by a group of immigrants seeking to establish their own California Republic – this was referred to as the Bear Flag Revolt
  • Small museum on the ground floor, you can walk up to the second floor and around the courtyard in the back of the building
  • Part of Sonoma State Historic Park

Sojourn Cellars (Sonoma but wines sourced from other areas)

  • Thanks again to Joe for the recommendation!
  • Tasting room located in downtown Sonoma
  • Owner used to be a tech exec in Silicon Valley
  • Focus on pinots in general with a few chards and a cab
  • No grapes are proprietary to the winery – all are sourced from other vineyards and producers, including the high-quality and highly-leveraged Sangiacomo farm in Carneros
  • Enjoyed some laughs with a young Canadian party crew

Sun 2/15

Sunday Drive – Mustard & Lake Hennessey

The mustard growing across the street from Mustard’s Grill was truly spectacular and a huge photo-op!  This area has been mowed in early March, so very happy we snapped these pics !  Mustard is a cover crop to reduce erosion, add nitrogen, and improve water penetration.  It also provides firm footing during wet weather to allow for winter and early spring access in the vineyard.  Other cover crops we’ve seen include wild radishes and sweet peas.

Then we drove up to Lake Hennessey:

Tues 2/17

Chappellet (Pritchard Hill)

  • Recommended by a bartender at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen as having fabulous wines at reasonable prices.  The wine manager over at Dean & Deluca also recommended this general location.
  • Beautiful location on on Pritchard Hill very close to the Bryant Family cult winery.  The owner has a copyright on the term Pritchard Hill and as such, it cannot yet be classified as an AVA.  No other wine producer in the area can use Pritchard Hill on their labels.
  • One of the best tours to date, right up there with Pride.
  • Chappellet was the first winery to plant vineyards exclusively on high-elevation hillsides.
  • Owners originally from Beverly Hills and purchased the land for about $1/acre
  • Son lives nearby and is a lover of the right to bear arms
  • Their logo mimics the pitched triad roof of the main facility
  • When we arrived it sounded like there was a party going on – turns out it was the owners having a meeting (a serious one with no wine being served)
  • We learned quickly that  the family is pretty artistic – the mother Molly has written a few books about Napa wineries and entertaining, their daughter creates the dragon-oriented art for their malbec label (she is also the winery’s attorney)
  • The tour was very personalized – we started inside touring the facility, briefly met Molly the owner, and saw the original malbec label artwork.  The theme for our tour was to ‘guess the wine varietal’ and we did an OK job – neither one of us could guess the chenin blanc, but given we hardly drink it, it’s understandable 🙂  Dave is getting very good at estimating the steel to oak aging ratios.
  • We shifted outside where we saw some of their equipment, including a high-tech optical sorter used to pick out bad berries from the batch, their extensive array of solar panels (which generate all of their electricity needs), and Molly’s favorite original vine.  We walked around the grounds and enjoyed the views.
  • We noticed a few rock groupings which reminded us of the ‘kopjes’ we saw lions hanging out on in the Serengeti – when we mentioned that, our host told us that after going to Africa, Don the owner commissioned a bush-style tent to be built on the vineyard for a kind of ‘man cave’.  He also hosted an African-themed party at the winery for charity where an African safari was auctioned off.
  • Chappellet was truly impressive – top quality wines at a reasonable price – this is definitely a potential wine club contender!
  • Our host turned us onto Continuum – Mondavi’s son opened it up on the same road – says a lot about this iconic’s family opinion of the Pritchard Hill area

    Thurs 2/19

Swanson (Oakville)

Located down a country road in Oakville in a small low-key building, Swanson was a turning point in our wine ‘schooling’ in that we discovered the importance of the AVA (American Viticultural Area), or wine-grape growing region, is in helping you determine which wines you may like best.

Our host started by showing us a map of the various AVAs – examples include: Oakville, Oak Knoll, Rutherford, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain, etc.  He explained the concepts of terroir and AVA:

  • Terroir refers to the climate, soil, rain, location, and the winemaker
  • AVA refers to all of the above except for the winemaker

On some level we’ve been unknowingly arranging our tasting appointments by this theory – grouping tasting visits together based on geographic proximity – logistics and planning (and large driving distances) make this somewhat of a necessity.

But our primary driver has been ours and other’s opinions of brand quality and the specific variety (love that Caymus Cabernet) instead of the cabernet growing area (Love those Oakville Cabs, Caymus being one of them.) What I love about this is being able to target vineyards in the same AVA but perhaps those that are lesser known, less available, and possibly more reasonably priced?

In addition, the attendant mentioned how people who love cabs from Oakville (Silver Oak) typically like white wines from the same area because of that land. Another cool way to potentially ‘discover’ varietals that you normally would shy away from? Speaking as someone who is more of a white wine fan (I think we are few and far between), I like the idea of converting some red-only drinkers over to the lighter side of white!

Attendant talked about how he and his friends have gone on a single varietal ‘tasting tour’ where they would try the same varietal, at the same price point, across a variety of AVAs. For ex pinot grigios from Carneros may be more lemon/lime, Oakville – more fruity – pear/apple, and Calistoga – peach, ripe apple.

With 33 different soil types in Napa across 16 AVAs, there’s plenty to explore!

Excuse the digression and perhaps this is common knowledge in more experienced wine circles, but it was a bit of an eye opener for us! 🙂

Our attendant has a traveling working lifestyle as well, though he and his wife sold everything, didn’t even rent a storage unit, and they’ve been living and working in a variety of west coast cities. He is interviewing for a position to start up a winery over in Europe.

The building décor and some of the wine branding has a New Orleans theme – one of the owners grew up in New Orleans, the other was from Chicago, and they met while on vacation in Naples.

Swanson sources grapes for their cab in the same area as Screaming Eagle (‘bench’ at the hillside base in Oakville.)

Swanson partnered with Vosges chocolate in Chicago on an interesting spicy dark chocolate and a fantastic Clark Bar – delicious!

Fri 2/20

Materra (tasting room in St Helena now closed, moving tasting room to their Oak Knoll winery location)

  • Tasting room a few blocks south of us, it was their last week prior to moving to their winery in Oak Knoll
  • Name means Mother Earth
  • Very reasonably priced wines
  • Loved the 2008 merlot (reminded me of Pride and I said so! And disappointed we didn’t buy), nice cab sav, enjoyed the sauvignon blanc (grows on the Oakville grade).
  • Learned that viognier is challenging to grow
  • Owners originally from Chicago suburbs, founded winery in 2007
  • Shared safari tips with attendant
  • Bought the 2009 C/S – blend of valley, Diamond, and Howell Mountai

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