March Wine Madness – Part 1

I hinted in our last post that we were ‘upping our game’ from a winery visit standpoint and we are delivering on that promise.  This entry will cover our activities from March 1 – 12.  As of March 12, we visited a total of 57 wineries.  If you read the last post you would see that during the first few weeks of March we visited the same number of wineries we did in Jan and Feb combined.  We’ve been able to do this because we’ve adopted the practice of spitting the wine and not swallowing – it really is a great way to keep your taste buds fresher for longer periods of time and to not end up asleep on the couch at 5pm!  🙂  You’ll note I have started a 3 star ranking systems for the wines we taste.  I may need to expand it to 5 stars for more rating options.  We are well on track to achieve our goal of visiting 100 wineries in 100 days!  Hold on to your wine glass, here we go!

Dave and I were both traveling for work to Chicago and St Louis the last week of Feb and returned to Napa on Sun 3/1.  It was fantastic once again to be home and get together with friends for dinner, wine, and conversation!  Thanks to Moira and Dave for putting me up in the lux Hotel Funcheon for a week!  It was a blast!

Tues 3/3

Darioush (Oak Knoll)

Winery owner has Iranian roots – his Dad made wine in Iran and he grew up with a love and appreciation for wine. He immigrated to the US to pursue the American dream and to share his love of wine. He owned a grocery store in San Francisco before starting the winery.

The entrance and building make a statement – Iranian architecture, grand columns – you do feel like you are being transported to another exotic land, in a Vegas-hotel type of way, but still very cool and with better wines than in Vegas – he he.

Luxury really seems to be the theme at Darioush – starting in the stately grounds and continuing into the interior. The décor was lush and rich and plenty of attention paid to detail. There are two helicopter pads on the premises who welcome the rich and famous who wish to fly to Napa and not deal with their chauffeur driving them.  It looked like there were guest suites available for members to stay at as well.  Darioush also has an onsite concierge who not only arranges a variety of tasting events at the winery, but they can also make hotel, restaurant, and other wine tasting appointments at other wineries. What a great idea!

The shiraz grape (same grape called syrah in the Rhone Valley of France) supposedly originated in ancient Persia, now Iran, in a city called Shiraz. Winemaking activity dates back to 5000 BC in the Zagros Mountains. Now that’s what you call some ‘old vines’!! Perhaps some French and Aussies would disagree with that theory, but hey I’ll take it! Unfortunately, the wine business was crushed (sorry couldn’t resist) when that damn Ayatollah (I remember bumper stickers that said ‘Ayatollah is an ass-a-hole-a) overthrew the Shah, moved the country to an Islamic state (booze not allowed), and from what I understand tossed out modern art, culture, films, etc. as well.  But let’s not digress into depressing states of affairs of the world….  Back to the adult playground of Napa!

Their grapes originate from Mt  Veeder – rocky, they grow Bordeaux varietals (cabs – spicy) as well as the valley floor (more chocolate notes.)

Wine highlights

  • Enjoyed the 2013 viognier, the 2012 signature Cab, and the 2012 Duel Cab/Shiraz blend
  • The label on the Duel is cool – the lion (who represents light) and the bull (representing dark) – it’s the Yin/yang in Iran.

Odette (Stags Leap)

Unfortunately turns out that the Odette brand has only one wine – a fantastic 96 point cab. Had we known that we would taste only the same Odette we had at Cade (and bought 2 bottles) we wouldn’t have made a trip. However, the visit was successful in that we discovered their lower-priced Adaptation brand and we got some great tips from a sommelier.  We are still working our way through his recommendations weeks later! He also shared with us that Clos du Val (the first winery I visited in the 90s with my Boston friend Jen and with Dave a few years ago), one of my favorite wineries, competed in one of the famous Judgment of Paris competitions (placed 5th with one of its cabs.)

Elyse (Yountville)

We visited here in 2013, on recommendation of my sommelier friend Joe.  It was a real treat then and still is – has a very small casual tasting room off the beaten path.  There was another couple there from Indie that we chatted with.  Our favorite wine once again was their Morisoli Cabernet – smooth, rich, and supple!  The other wines really can’t shine a light to it!  We chatted a lot about cable shows and restaurants.  The attendant had recommended the HBO special Vice, Citizen 4, The Jinx (he’s been in the news!), and recommended a few restaurants in Napa.

Tasting highlights:

  • L’Ingenue blend of Viognier and French wines (from east of Sacramento)
  • Le Corbeau (the raven) – Grenache syrah blend. Rhone variety
  • Korte Ranch Zin, Black Sears Zin (spicy, smooth, Howell Mtn), and our favorite the Morisoli 2009 Cabernet
  • Jacob Franklin – Cabernet – estate wines, small production (200-300 cases)

Groezingers Wine Shop

After Elyse and before dinner in Yountville, we checked out a cool independent wine store called Groezingers and had a fun and interesting visit with the owners!  They carried an impressive selection of cult wines at impressive prices!  The owner’s girlfriend told us that she was selling the wines on consignment for a friend who recently stopped drinking after amassing a monstrous collection of valuable wine.  His kids aren’t fans of wine either, so giving these bottles to family wasn’t an option either.  When we asked if the wines were worth the price, we got their drift when the answer was:  “We’ll sell them…”

Rick, the owner, told us an incredible personal story.  We haven’t been able to confirm the veracity of it of course, but it’s memorable for us and we’d like to share it with you!  Rick made a limited amount of zin at his home, in his driveway, and he called it Screaming Gopher – the label shows a gopher standing on top of an eagle, a snub to the cult wine Screaming Eagle.  He showed us a bottle and it was pretty funny.  Supposedly it was so good he started to sell the wine to resorts and fancy restaurants in Phoenix.  His industry contacts there ended up organizing a blind wine competition in which Rick’s Screaming Gopher beat out majorly  pricey cult wines including Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin, etc.!  When we asked about purchasing the bottle, he said it wasn’t for sale.   Instead, we bought his Electric Puddle zin was and we had to buy a bottle!  We’ll let you know how it is!

Wed 3/4

Vineyard 29

We visited this winery based on recommendations from PK & Sheila, and a great one it was!  The winery is located just about a mile away from our house.  The setting was very pretty, and the winery itself very modern and state-of-the-art.  Kelsey, our attendant, showed us their gravity flow production facility – no oxygen or pumps are used that would draw out the tannins.  They harvest in 30lb buckets, smaller than usual, so as not to crush the grapes.  Their staff monitors fermentation via an app – that’s pretty cool.

Some of Vineyard 29’s claim to fame includes association with some very famous winemakers, including Heidi Barrett who was the winemaker there from its beginning and through 1989 as well as Philippe Melka who makes their zinfandel.  Like other wineries we visited, the owners of Vineyard 29 didn’t initially intend to get into the wine business when they moved to Napa – the cult-status Grace Family owners convinced them to plant grapes and produce wine.  We saw some of their first vintages with Heidi’s signatures and Grace Family co-branding in a gorgeous cave library room.


  • 2012 Sauvignon Blanc – little to no oak, Dave smelled sulfur
  • Zin – we really loved it
  • Pinot Noir – grapes were from Oregon
  • 2012 Cru Cabernet – 6 dots on the label refers to 6 different vineyards
  • 2011 Cab – spicy, pepper (2 stars)
  • 2011 Aida Estate Cab, fruit-forward, really LOVED it, but pricey!

One of the most memorable quotes from our wine attendants is the following:  Dave mentions that we feel a little snobby about getting a wine storage unit in Chicago.  Kelsey our attendant says:  “Around here we’d look at you funny if you DIDN’T have wine storage”.

When we were being escorted out we saw the couple in front us had taken our 2 wines with them! They bought 2 and left with 4.  I know who WON’T be visiting Vineyard 29 anymore (as it is appointment only) – wow!  It was pretty funny!  The look on our attendant’s face was priceless!

Fri 3/6

Frank Family

  • Old winery built in 1884 and used to be Larkmead Winery, where Hans Kornell used to make sparkling wines
  • The current tasting room building used to be a guest house where Marilyn Monroe stayed multiple times, she was a fan of the Kornell’s bubbly (and yes, it’s Kornell, not Korbell)
  • The owner Rich Frank previously held executive positions in TV broadcast networks and movies (Paramount, USA, Disney TV)
  • One day Rich introduced himself to a customer as “Rich Frank” and the guest responded that he was “Poor Ted” – cute! Reminds me of when I programmed my Uncle Rich’s # into my cell phone and it displayed as “Rich Uncle”!
  • The owners are big dog lovers – wines named after dogs (one is deceased) and kids
  • Welcoming casual place where you can picnic on the grounds
  • We enjoyed a reserve tasting – 2013 Lewis Chardonnay (buttery – $65), 2013 Lewis Pinot ($65), 2012 Chiles Valley Reserve Zin (peppery, $55), and Ruth Reserve Cab ($85), Zin Port (not at all what I expected from a port, loved it, $65), 2012 Petite Sirah (special pour, $65)
  • We had a good time and bought a few bottles – really wanted to like it more, but different strokes rule the world!  hmmmmm……..

Storybook Mountain Vineyard

  • Storybook is in our top 10, potentially 5 wineries to date – primarily due to the quality wines, but the experience was special and personalized as well as we enjoyed an ‘insider’ tour on the grounds and in the caves.  We were joined by a couple living in Calistoga – another ER physician and his wife who is in the healthcare industry as well.
  • The 77-year old owner believes in attention to detail and we get to reap the rewards in the bottle!  He plants in mini lots – knows every inch of the land (all 105 lots or mini lots) and what grows well, what doesn’t, and monitors every inch to make sure grapes are picked at the right time. Zin grows great right next to an area where it doesn’t grow well – that’s how precise the planning and planting is.  We’ve seen similar practices here and there (including Kuleto) and we have yet to taste wine from such a vineyard that isn’t yummy.  We’ll keep trying – it’s a tough job, but we’re willing to take it on!  🙂
  • A cool tradition is that the owner personally brings in every box of fruit to the winery.  We all hope to be as physically able to be so active at that ripe age!

Let’s digress for a bit of ancient Storybook history:

  • As we may have shared in our Schrambsberg post, about 1500 Chinese workers were brought to CA to dig the Silverado mines – and like many other wineries, these same workers were hired to dig out the wine caves to age another precious commodity!  The Germans arrived in 1883 and cleared the land and planted zin.
  • In the 1880s there were 3 famous ‘Jacobs’ – Jacob Grimm (along with his brother Adam/original owners of the winery), Jacob Schramm, and Jacob Beringer. The Grimm brothers believe it or not did name the winery Grimm’s Vineyards.  They obviously didn’t have a marketing team in place at the time – he he.
  • Massive fire in the 60s destroyed the winery – the trees around the winery still have black bark.  It was re-opened in the 70s by the current owner’s parents who did not want to keep the Grimm name on the winery and vineyards (can’t blame them) – but they paid homage to the original owner’s name and the natural beauty of the place by calling it by the very memorable ‘Storybook’ name.  Cool!
  • In ’76 they cultivated merlot with some help from Dan Duckhorn, a merlot pioneer in Napa when no one was making merlot (another one of our favs and a winery with some fun stories you’ll read about later.)  Love that name Duckhorn!
  • The owner consulted geologists, viticultural experts on what type of fruit to plant (again, remember his attention to detail?) – based on the red clay soil, they were advised that zin was the best choice and zin (along with cab) was planted – I guess the Germans knew what they were doing way back when!
  • Storybook uses mustard, wild radish, and sweet peas for cover crops – if you read the last posting you may recall that these help address nitrogen levels, they help to stem erosion, and they provide firm footing for accessing the vineyards in the rainy season (not that there’s hardly been any rain since 2011.)  However, you will soon learn that the owner of one of our most favorite wineries thinks cover crop is a bunch of bunk!
  • Storybook specializes in hillside zin – valley floor zin can often be syrupy sweet and high alcohol content (but we love that too!)
  • Certified organic vineyard
  • Small amount of petite verdot grown on the vineyard (loves the south sun) – temperamental to grow (I remarked how I had only seen 100% petite verdot over at Romeo Cellars – very few wineries produce that or Cabernet Franc)
  • Storybook has been named among the top 100 wineries in the world by a trade publication (Wine & Spirits) nine times – Wine & Spirits may be more reputable than other ad-driven publications)
  • In 2012 their reserve zin gets the highest rating ever given to a zin

What we tasted (in the cave):

  • Viognier – provides nice viscosity to the wine, and ‘fixes’ color in red.  Who’d have thunk it?  It is added to the Eastern Exposure red wine – we were very surprised by this and had never heard of a white varietal being mixed with a red one, but supposedly this is common practice in the Rhone valley.
    • When Jerry (the owner) went to Burgundy he was shocked when someone dumped viognier into his zin for that Burgundian style 🙂  Kind of like the wine equivalent of chocolate in my peanut butter, but trust me, this formula works!
  • 2012 Antaeus – loved it, Eastern Exposure – 92% zin, 8% petit verdot

Sat 3/7

Domaine Carneros

A bit about Carneros, the AVA:

  • Domaine Carneros was our first visit to a Carneros winery – we have driven through many times on the way to and from San Francisco and we were looking forward to a day of tasting in this region.
  • The name Carneros is Spanish for ram or sheep – in the 1830s General Vallejo’s flocks grazed this Carneros land.  The rams head is the symbol of the Carneros appellation.
  • Carneros is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir given its cooler climate and it is the second oldest grape growing region, or AVA, north of San Francisco.

Moving onto the winery and tasting:

  • The gorgeous chateau building was built in the late 80s and was inspired by the Chateau de la Marquetterie in Champagne France. The cellarmaster there made significant contributions to refining the Champagne making process in the 17th centry. The chateau is now home to the Taittinger family – Taiitinger has a relationship with Domaine Carnernos as the name also appears on some labels.  The winery was a bit factory-like, very busy and popular, with many large groups, limos, etc.  However I found our experience to be relaxed with an attentive host.
  • We sat outside enjoying the view and enjoyed some very generous pours of 4 types of sparkling wine
  • Dave could really smell sulfur in many of the wines – I really couldn’t – ironic given I’m pretty much a bloodhound when it comes to other ‘sulfuric’ scents if you get my drift!
  • Brought out the good stuff (2 tastes of late disgorged sparkling wine and sparkling rose) when we asked for a price list – that’s what we ended up buying

Etude (Carneros)

  • Visited on the recommendation of the sommelier we met over at Odette
  • Modern clean space, cool displays of soil from all over Napa and Sonoma
  • Most wines were impressive and highly-rated, and great that the winery honors the Napa Neighbor discount

Tasting included:

  • 2012 Pinot Blanc – nice, viognier-like, creamy, cousins to pinot noir and pinot gris (2*)
  • 2009 Cab Oakville (we purchased, 3*)
  • 2013 Bannockburn NZ Pinot (3*)
    • The first winery we’ve come across that uses NZ grape for one of their pinots (which I really enjoyed)
  • 2012 Heirloom Pinot
  • Carneros Pinot (91 WA)
  • Cab – Rutherford 2009

Bouchaine (Carneros)

  • Visited this winery based on the somm we met at Odette
  • It was very much off the beaten path, located on a little country road
  • The winery was pretty packed – they were hosting their spring ‘pick up’ day for members – Dave thought it was a single’s party at first when he heard ‘pick up’ – be sure to tease him next time you see him!
  • Winery founded in 1981, owners from MD originally, and they focus on Burgundy style wines
  • Tasted the Bacchus Series including a 2013 Syrah Rose (*), 2012 Pinot Gris (**), and a 2013 Riesling (2.5*), 2012 Pinot Meunier (Christmas, pairs with duck, salmon, lighter side of pinot noir, 2012 Terraces Point – 2 terraces, grapes struggle, small hilltops, medium body, 2012 Cab – 1st vintage in Coombsville for this primarily pinot producer. Coombsville is the 16th and NEW Appelation – sirahs and cabs do well. They lost their 2013 vintage.  Had a special tasting of the 2011 Chene d’Argent Chardonnay as a thank you for our patience
  • Pinot Meunier is a base grape for blending for champagne – chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier (known to be the ‘lesser’ of the grapes)
  • Blanc de blanc is 100% chardonnay

Sun 3/8

HdV (Napa)

HdV was a real treat – first, our wine host / “ambassador” Eddie was so flexible with us when I accidentally booked our visit for Sat 3/7 when I meant to do so for Sun 3/8.  He was very gracious and let us change our reservation to Sun.  Their tasting room was located in the office in the barrel and tank barn.  We had a specialized menu printed out (with Sat’s date of course 🙂

HdV is located on Trancas, right on the corner of Silverado and Trancas, the gateway to other Napa wineries.

The winery has some heavy-hitting owners in the wine industry:  Hyde (the H in HdV) is a very well-known supplier of grapes to a variety of quality wineries all across the valley.  deVilliane (the dV) is the co-director of the famed venerable DRC (Domaine de la Romanee Conti) in France.  Call the Napa wine and culture police, but I had never heard of them!  (NB: Other offenses include opening a bottle of Charles Shaw within a 5 mile radius!)  DRC is one of the world’s greatest (and pricey) wine producers and I look forward to Dave buying a bottle soon, right Dave?  ha ha!

  • Wines are in the Burgundian style (limited or no oak)
  • Carneros has clay soil – many grapes for their wines are sourced from there
  • Chardonnay – pick early and you can age it longer – aging is dependent on acid. Acidify or acidulate – add acid, add that to your vocab!
  • Drink low acid whites in 5 years.  Sounds like HdV wines can age nicely as well – 2001 held up
  • Somehow we got on the topic of Greek wines – Eddie talked about how the vines there coil into a basket formation for protection from heat and wind – I guess we gotta go and check it out – in the spirit of enhancing our wine know-how, right?!
  • Recommended Adastra pinot and merlot (he referred to merlot as the unsung hero of Carneros), Calera (near Big Sur), and Littorai (looks like only Chards and pinots), and he liked Bedrock (which Dave came across as well researching award-winning zins)

Wine notes

  • 2013 de la Guerre Chardonnay (3*)
  • HDV Chardonnay – a bit more oak than the de la Guerre (2*)
  • 2011 Syrah (2*) – spring weather / cool, smooth
  • 2011 Belle Cousine Merlot & Cab Blend (3*)
  • Special pour of the Ysabel Pinot Noir (pricey) and the 2012 Chardonnay Commandante

Eddie told us a great story about how when the staff was tasting their first vintage of pinot noir, the French owner Aubert (the DRC guy) said ‘this is not pinot noir to me’ and initially excused himself from the tasting given his ‘lack of experience with Napa pinots’. C’est domage!  The staff convinced him to stay and give his opinion and that he did.

Robert Biale (Oak Knoll)

This winery definitely lived up to its reputation and Joe’s recommendation. It is zin heaven, known for single vineyard zins (14) and petite sirahs. It has been the subject of many stories Dave and I continue to share with people at other wineries!  It is also a candidate for a Pipin visit when they come into town in early April, right before the Lunns!

When we walk in the door, after asking us if we had an appointment (which was a tad off-putting), the very friendly attendant Pat told us that Biale has been in business for more than 100 years, with only the last 25 years being legal (in 1991)! Talk about an opener!

Biale is famous for its zins, in particular its Black Chicken – and the story is quite memorable:

In the 40s, Aldo Biale sold his family wine under the code name “Black Chicken” to locals throughout Napa. Along with standard daily phone orders for eggs, chicken, fruit, and vegetables also would come occasional orders for a ‘black chicken’, a reference to a jug full of Aldo’s finest! Biale did this for about 50 years as an unlicensed business. At least they were in good company in the 20s during prohibition when many wineries were in the ‘sacramental wine’ and ‘personal use’ business. Individuals were allowed to make 200 gallons of wine per year for personal consumption.

Their wines were really impressive.  Dave was on the 2nd tasting and had already completed the ‘Black Chicken Society’ form!

Other tidbits discussed:

  • Action is in the skin, not so much in the juice
  • Lay down (age) their wines for 3-5 years
  • Italians planted vegetables during the gold rush and they brought Italian wine varietals with them.  They referred to grappa as “bad” wine
  • Biale produces typically less than 300 cases of each of their wines
  • The wine hosts provided us with a host of other winery recommendations, which have been duly noted on our ‘tracking maps’!


  • 2012 Black Chicken (3*) – Oak Knoll
  • 2012 Stagecoach Vineyard Zinfandel (2*) – located on Atlas Peak, volcanic soil, well0drained, concentrated fruit, gets afternoon sun
  • 2012 Old Kraft Vineyard Zin (St Helena) (3*) – old knarly 100 yr old vines
  • 2012 Pagani Zin
  • Special pour – 2012 Rocky Ridge (**) – northern Dry creek, almost up to Mendocino
  • Aldo’s Vineyard (3*) – loved it, special pour
  • Like Father/Like Son petite sirah (3*) – blend of syrah and petite sirah – petite sirah is ‘son’ of Syrah cultivated in the Rhone Valley

St Supery (Rutherford)

  • Like the tall palm tree entrance with white lights, reminds me of Vegas
  • Modern tasting room with inviting outdoor seating area

Wine notes:

  • 2012 Semillon – Bordeaux late harvest (1.5*)
  • 2012 Virtu ***, Napa estate, 50% oak, Sauvignon blanc provides brightness
  • Petite Verdot – this was the 3rd winery that has a 100% petite verdot
  • 2013 Napa Valley Oak Free Chardonnay *** (bought 2 bottles)

Large production: 100K, 50 acres in St Helena, and 150 acres in Howell Mountain

Mon 3/9

Caymus (Oakville)

I took this week off of work, just because I wanted a break!  Caymus was a great way to kick off the vacation.  They had pretty grounds, lots of comfortable outdoor seating, and it was a typical gorgeous sunny CA day!

They were pouring a selection from Caymus, Emmolo, Belle Glos, and Mer Soleil. Conundrum and Meiomi are also Caymus brands, owned by the Wagner Family.  Production – 65K cases – thought it would have been more.

Tasting included:

  • Mer Soleil 2013 Reserve Chardonnay (1.5*)
  • Belle Glos 2013 Las Alturas Pinot Noir (2.5*)
  • Emmolo 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley – 3* – super smooth – Emmolo (named after Italian side of the family and the winemaker is Wagner’s daughter) (bought it)
  • Caymus 2012 40th Anniversary Cabernet – 3* – Robert Parker gave it a 96 (bought it)(reasonably priced at $60)

Friendly attendants, since we were outside we didn’t stand and chat with them and learn more about the history and backstory of Caymus.  We have definitely been making it a point to hang around the attendants to get info (and often special treatment/extra pours/etc.), but it was so beautiful out I didn’t care.  Blog be damned!

So I did do a little research online to supplement:

  • 100% family owned. Farming grapes remain the priority with the family farming about 350 acres of choice Napa Valley land.
  • The Wagners took the name Caymus from the Mexican land grant known as Rancho Caymus, given to George Yount in 1836, which encompassed what eventually became the town of Rutherford and much of the surrounding area.
  • Caymus aromas and flavors which can only be achieved through “hang time” – leaving the fruit to “hang” on the vine unusually long develops suppleness, increases color, and matures as well as softens the tannins of the grapes. Crop thinning, allowing measured sunlight to reach the vine’s fruit zone, and waiting for increased ripeness are all part of our viticultural practices.

Miner Family (Oakville)

Believe that the attendant over at Twomey recommended Miner Family.  They are located on Silverado Rd with a large terrace overlooking the valley.  We kept our tasting inside in order to get some ‘inside scoop’ from the attendant, Malissa.  Initially it was a bit rocky as I showed her a printout of our lease agreement to get our ‘local’s discount’ and she seemed to doubt its validity. We assured her our goal is to buy, and not taste/get buzzed, and so we got on with the wine tasting! She was very knowledgeable and friendly – she is working on a more advanced sommelier certification and introduced us to the term ‘expectorate’ (spit)!

Production – 20-25K cases

Wines span a variety of styles:

  • Bordeaux (Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc)
  • Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay)
  • Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussane)
  • Other/Spanish/Italian (Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Rosato)

In general we really enjoyed the wines and found most of the pricing to be quite reasonable.

  • 2011 Marsanne (Rhone varietal) – 3*
  • 2013 Sav Blanc, Napa Valley – steel only – 3*
  • 2013 Vioginer, Simpson Vineyard – steel only – 3*
  • 2012 The Iliad, Napa Valley (5% viognier, 45% Roussanne, 50% Marsanne) – 2*
  • 2010 Chardonnay, Wild Yeast – 2* (in a Chardonnay glass – Montrachet style, wider)
  • Chardonnay from Carneros – Wild yeast refers to spontaneous fermentation
  • 2012 Pinot Noir, Gary’s Ranch- 2.5* – Hand turned 3x/day during fermentation
  • 2012 Sangiovese, Gibson Ranch – 2* – Light, Same family as zinfandel
  • 2010 Syrah, La Diligence – 2.5*
  • Stagecoach, Atlas Peak – fermented with stems which increase the tannins and earthiness
  • 2012 Cabernet, Napa – 2.5-3*
  • 2010 Merlot, Stagecoach – 3*
  • The Oracle flagship wine is a meritage

More about Meritage:

  • This is a made-up word, registered as a US trademark, that wineries must pay to use on their wines
  • Back in 1989, US wineries were all choosing names for their various blended wines, and it was getting hard to keep track of them all. An association was formed to try to define a “Bordeaux Blend” of grapes that was done on non-French soil. They had over 6,000 people submit choices for the name of this blend, and “Meritage” won. This is a deliberate combination of the words “Merit” and “Heritage”.
  • First off, in order to earn the name “meritage” the wine can’t be a mass-marketed wine. The winery’s release of Meritage must be under 25,000 cases. It has to be a “high-end” wine for the winery – it can’t be their bargain basement offering. Most importantly, the meritage has to be a blend of certain grapes. These are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. There is also a white Meritage, which is far less common. This uses Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle.

Conn Creek (Rutherford)

  • Known for Bordeaux-style wines including their flagship Anthology.
  • Napa is a Native American word for plenty
  • Conn sources from a variety of high quality vineyards nearly all of Napa’s sub-appellations (or AVAs) (this is a very common practice)
  • Wines were elegant

2012 Cabernet – neutral oak, on the lees aging, yeast cells provide protein and smoothness

  • More about On the lees: You let wine sit on the lees in order to extract more flavor.
  • 2 types: grape and yeast
  • Aging wine on the grape lees is something to be undertaken with extreme care as this lees can easily spoil a wine if not done properly. When done correctly though it can lead to a wonderfully complex wine.
  • Yeast lees on the other hand is the more common lees to perform sur lie aging with. As the yeast decomposes it can impart nut, bread, and yeast flavors to a wine. Different yeast cells can contribute different flavors too so you’re not guaranteed to get the same thing from all yeast strains.

2012 Cab Franc – 3* – from 2 valley floors, main – St Helena, Atlas Peak, Polk valley (higher elevation)

  • Better ripening quality
  • Brightness from acidity
  • Fruit covers entire palette (often it just covers the front)

2010 Cabernet – Stagecoach (Atlas Peak) – 2.5* single vineyard
2009 Cabernet – Atlas Peak – 3*, WE – 92 pts
2009 Cabernet – Mt Veeder – 2.5-3* – WE 90 pts

Conn Creek has a unique barrel blending experience that we may have to check out!  You can custom blend from 15 different single vineyard wines.

Tues 3/10

Neyers (Sage Canyon)

Managed to squeeze this appointment in the day before our planned trek back over to Sage Canyon/Pritchard Hill.  The somm we we met over at Odette recommended this winery.  The person who scheduled the appointment wasn’t the friendliest, I was a bit hesitant about the visit.  While we enjoyed the quality wines and found the host to be very knowledgeable and easy to talk to, it paled a bit compared to the other tasting we had in Sage Canyon.

  • The tasting room was inside their office building and we enjoyed a private tasting along with a custom printed tasting menu.
  • Neyers’ has a ‘home vineyard’ – Neyers Ranch – Conn Valley and they also source grapes from other vineyards, a very common practice throughout Napa.
  • French-influenced winemaking approach
  • The owners Bruce and Barbara moved to CA in ’68 and Bruce had a sales background (National Sales Manager for the French wine importing company Kermit Lynch) and continued to focus on business development of the winery.
  • 1992 – official start of the winery with merlot from their home vineyard – gradually the owners worked their way up and continued to work full-time jobs while growing their business.
  • Certified Organic


2012 Carneros Chardonnay (2.5*)

  • Learned about the Wente selection – has a ‘thumb’ – little and big berries, 2 sizes leads to increased dimensionality
  • 30% new oak/70% netural – malolactic fermentation happens natively
  • Their chardonnays can be aged 5 years or more – aged Chardonnay has more ‘old Chard’ characteristics such as more carmel and vanilla and a bit less fruit than its younger self. Really loved the analogy of an aged Chardonnay being more of a ‘tart out of the oven’ and a younger one being the ‘tart about to go into the oven’.
  • Neyers recommends aging their Chardonnays for about 2-3 years

2012 Neyers Ranch – Conn Valley Merlot (2.5*) – grown at 300-800ft
2010 Neyers Ranch – Conn Valley Cabernet (3*)
2013 Roberts Road Pinot Noir (3*)

  • Hillside grapes take more time to develop than on valley floor
  • Organic wines – sulfur needed/sometimes too much sulfur would turn you off. We are all used to a certain amount of it in our wines and it wouldn’t be good to completely eliminate it because it helps the wine age and protects it from spoiling. It does burn off eventually.
  • Tannins help preserve red wines.

Learned from their website that they crush their Syrah grapes by foot, not with machine – talk about old school and a party! They also do manual ‘punch downs’ of the ‘caps’ (layers of skin from the grapes that form a ‘cap’ on top of the tank) – punch downs help blend the color/flavor of the skins throughout the fermenting wine. Punch downs are considered to be a Rhone Valley tradition.

Kuleto (Hennesey Basin, near Pritchard Hill)

What a memorable place this winery was – a majestic mountain-top retreat with some of the best views in the Napa Valley and and chock full of interesting things to take in, including a working ranch!

The winding drive up to the estate was memorable, a bit scary, but provided beautiful views, and it was a treat to come upon a stable full of horses before turning into the winery.

The winery itself transports you to Tuscany as the construction and design was meant to model a Tuscan villa. The owner Pat Kuleto is a restaurant entrepreneur and he has designed a variety of restaurants around the country and still owns a few in San Francisco. His attention to detail (and control) is evident in a variety of ways: the design of the winery, bringing in a ‘watersayer’ to identify where to dredge to create a pond on the premises so that he could fill it with fish, and getting the proper certification to own and operate a working firetruck on the property – very smart as it would be very challenging for any FD to respond quickly to such a remote location. The other area where attention to detail comes in is with the farming techniques employed on the 83 acres (out of 761 total estate acres) that are planted.

The estate offers a variety of unique growing environments and microclimates, has three distinctive soil types, and a range of plantable elevations which enables Kuleto to plant a large number of varietals. From pinot noir at a lower and cooler planting level (800-1000 ft.) to Cabernet and Syrah at higher warmer elevations (900-1500 ft.) To take advantage of these unique microclimates, the vineyard is farmed in a micro-block approach in which its 100+ blocks are planted, monitored, and picked based on topography and soil – resulting in grapes that are most ‘true to the land’. Kuleto’s harvest can last 50 days, for most of the wineries we’ve visited only a few go for any longer than 2 weeks.

Mr Kuleto reminds us of a ‘prepper’ in that he obtains the majority of his food directly from the farm and ranch, the mountain-top homestead is in a perfect place to monitor the entire valley, and there’s a gate to keep the bad guys out!

Production: 20K cases

In 2009 Kuleto sold the winery to Bill Foley who owns a portfolio of wine brands throughout Napa (including Sebastiani and James Foley.) Kuleto still lives on the estate in a grand home with an infiniti pool that looks like it drops off into Lake Hennessey.

Our attendant Debra was great, providing a wealth of information about the origins of Kuleto Estate and highlighting what makes the winery so unique. We started with a taste of rose, then made our way around the grounds, taking in the scenery, seeing the outdoor entertainment area, the engineered pond, the livestock area including sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, and pigeons, and a quick stop to view Pat’s house which had gorgeous rosemary growing right near the entrance and an incredible view of Lake Hennessey. I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Our tasting:

  • 2011 Chardonnay (3*)
  • 2012 Zin (3*)
  • 2011 Syrah
  • Special taste of the 2009 Danielli

The cheese pairing provided with the wines was a real treat as well. It was a luxurious experience sitting outside taking in the view, enjoying the cheese, and the wine. We also met one of the winemakers.  Life is good!

All of the wines were top-notch and we consider Kuleto to be one of the top wineries we’ve visited, right up there with Pride!  Unfortunately they are not family-friendly which is a shame given its beauty and unique location.

Nichelini (Chiles Valley, Sage Canyon)

We discovered this winery while driving to Lake Hennessey a few weekends ago and we added it to our hit list. I liked how the winery hugged the edge of the road on a bit of a hairpin turn – reminds me of those narrow European and Massachusetts roads!

We were amazed that Jeanette, a 5th generation Nichelini, made a long trip into the winery that day in part because of our scheduled tasting, and we had the whole place to ourselves!.

Winery has been in business for more than 100 years, all family-owned and operated, every wine-maker has been a Nichelini. The current winemaker is the 7th to hold the position, a 5th generation Nichelini named Aimee who attended UC Davis’s famous Viticulture and Enology program. She sounds like a practical person with great ideas!

Production: 2500 cases/yr, 100% of the wines come from their vineyards (no sourced grapes). They produce at least 12 different varietals, interesting for a small operation.

Family is from Swiss decent, but Dave and I think they are really Italian J as they were pasta and wine makers and they played bocci ball in the backyeard of the home (which is now the winery!) Their name of course sounds Italian as well!

1882 – Anton came to the US, he was a stone mason, started working in Sonoma. He met his soon-to-be wife Katerina in San Francisco – she too was from Switzerland and made it quite clear on the first date that she was looking for a husband. They were married just a few weeks later! The same stone winery that Anton built is still used today. The couple was able to take advantage of the Homestead Act and they had to demonstrate progress with their business within 5 years. The home where Anton and Katerina raised 12 kids is now the tasting room and office.

One of the most memorable Napa Prohibition stories we heard here –

During that time, the family had gravity-fed water pipes linking their tank at the top of the hill to the water in the home. They got creative and filled a section of the tank with wine. If you turned the faucet to the right, you got water. To the left, you got it – wine! Who wouldn’t love that in their home now? He he!

Another Prohibition lore: Anton Nichelini delivered sacramental wines for Beaulieu (BV)f and he hid the Nichelini wine under the boards and was able to sell it on the sly during his deliveries. If stopped, he had the permit for the sacramental wine delivery so he was ‘covered’.

At some point in time Katerina sold her ‘faucet wine’ to the wrong person and she did get arrested. However, Anton volunteered to do the small amount of jail time in her place. From what I recall it was during a Sat for a few months, nothing too taxing. It’s been speculated that he really wanted a break from the wife and 12 kids and didn’t mind doing the time!

After tasting the wines Jeanette took us on a tour of the winery and property. We quickly learned that Nichelini was Bonded Winery # 843 – all wineries with bond #s under 3300 in the valley were started before Prohibition. Their barrel room is naturally cool / perfectly suited to store/age wines. They have an old 12 square foot shed that Anton lived in for a short time on the property that they plan to restore and use as a historical display and for events.

Wines tasted:

  • 2013 Old Vine Muscadelle (2*) – Bordeaux varietal, vnes are 68 years old from a few acres in Napa
  • 2011 Merlot (2*)
  • 2012 and 2013 were warm dry years – 2014 was an early harvest, condensed year
  • 2010 Zin – William Block (2.5*) – lighter than the reserve, a bit dry
  • Roman Press (Zin Blend) (3*) – 92% zin and 8% petite sirah – table blend, every day, picnic
  • 2011 Petite Sirah Reserve – a bit dry (2.5*)

Syrah and Primitivo are related, zin originated in Croatia.

Overall, a special and memorable visit with good wines and great service!!

Wed 3/11 

Instead of traveling for a few nights up to Vancouver or down to Santa Barbara (and spending almost a grand on flights alone), we decided to stay local and visit the coast (and redirect that grand to our growing wine arsenal)   Bodega Bay and back to Sebastopol to visit Paul Hobb’s (on my radar ever since having their Chardonnay in Truckee after Dave’s niece Jackie’s wedding in 2013.)  Dave also had his heart set on going to Hartford Family after seeing their zin Wine Spectator ratings.

Bodega Bay

Sleepy little fishing town, most restaurants and shops were closed up, noticed an interesting church St Teresa of Avila, photographed by Ansel Adams (Church and Road 1953) and in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Had a fantastic lunch (NE clam chowder & a special Dungeness crab sandwich at Spud Point Crab Co.  This area is known for its Dungeness crab and I can see why!

Lynmar Estate (Russian River Valley)

Ended up back in Sebastopol quite early and decided to visit Lynmar first, one of our Odette somm recommendations. We did a side by side taste of their Signature and Reserve wines.

Signature Tasting:

  • 2012 Russian River Valley Chardonnay (2.5*) – WE 90 pts. 4 vineyards, younger small amount of malolactic fermentation
  • 2011 Quail Hill Chardonnay (2.5-3*) – WE 95 pts, farmed locally on the estate, great year for Chardonnay, and a bit more time in the bottle
  • 2013 Russian River Pinot. 6 vineyards, least amount of oak. The winery has 15 pinots and clones.
  • 2008 Russian River Reserve Cuvee Syrah (2.5*)
  • Rose limited release pinot


  • 2012 Susanna’s Vineyard (2.5*) – WE 93 pts
  • 2012 Jenkins Pinot Noir(3*) – WE 94 pts – vineyard not owned by Lynmar,, fog, coastal weather, wine club-only wine
  • 2012 Quail Hill Pinot (2.5-3*) – WE 93 pts, more robust, powerful than RRV pinot. A blend of blocks. 90 different associated grapes (?)
  • 2012 Quail Hill, Summit Block Pinot (3*) –WE 93 pts, 1 block, Carneros clone

Paul Hobbs (Russian River Valley)

  • Funny enough ended up arriving 30 min early, even though it was in my calendar at the right time.
  • The actual winery is a work of modern art, very cool and unique.
  • Production: 20K­ – majority of what they produce are appellation blends (4-5K cases of these), 250-1500 cases for the reserve wines.
  • Our attendant Chelsea explained how Paul has a huge focus on farming, and he comes from a family in upstate NY (Burt) and his family owned an apple orchard. The Katherine Lindsey estate (home vineyard to PH) also used to be an apple farm.
  • Paul attended Notre Dame, was going for pre-med. Took botany as an elective and his professor was a winemaker with Christian Brothers – he convinced Paul to convert a few apple acres over to grapes and the rest was history. Paul enrolled at UC Davis and completed his masters in viticultural studies.
  • Harvest is usually early Sept – this yr likely to be early/mid-August because of the early spring/warm winter.
  • Russian River Valley is a cooler appellation, lots of micro-climates are found in Sonoma.
  • Sonoma had hail following the Cabo hurricane – crazy.
  • Cabs are from Dry Creek, Anderson Valley, a bit inland

I noticed Stagecoach Vineyard, Beckstoffer on the list – famous quality vineyards.

  • Andy Beckstoffer – owns 2000 acres of land, bought the To Kalon vineyards from Mondavi (where Hobbs interned – he also spent 7 yrs at Opus One)
  • To Kalon – Oakville, started in 1868, 100 clones, very historic (we saw another vineyard next door to Caymus)
  • Paul has complete control over the blocks at To Kalon

Meanwhile Hobbs has recently bought his first estate over in Napa.

Crossbarn is their sister, less expensive brand – refers to the name of the barn that Paul had growing up in upstate NY.

More about their production style which was described in such an easy to understand style by Chelsea:

  • Grapes handsorted on a conveyer belt
  • Chardonnay – ferment and ages with stems, direct to oak barrels, no time in steel tanks
  • They use cranes to place boxes of grapes into the tanks using a bit of gravity flow
  • Punch down of pinot – a machine gently stirs the skin/seed mix (which can be about 12” thick) that forms on the top (referred to as the ‘cap’) (2 weeks of fermentation)
  • Cab – they do a ‘pump over’ – the skin/seed combo film gathers in the middle of the tank – they pump the juice out of the bottom, strain seeds/stems, etc. out and gently pump drained juice back up to the top of the tank
  • Paul also very into barrels, each lot is aged into specific barrels best for the grapes
  • Paul Hobbs has a winery in Mendoza – Vina Cobos, we have to visit!


  • 2011 Ritchie Vineyard (2.5*) – long term contract with the vineyard/they don’t own the land – this vineyard is farthest away, grapes are hand-harvested. Bright fruit taste.
  • 2011 Ross Station (3*) – floral, mineral, peach, onsite vineyard
  • 2012 Pinot RRV (2.5*) – complex round finish, fuller mouth feel, appellation blend, abundant fruits
  • 2011 Napa Valley Cab (3*) – barnyard round, supple tannins, evolving quickly
  • 2010 Beckstoffer Las Piedras (2.5*) – initially seemed more fruit forward than dry, more tannins

Thurs 3/12

Hartford Family (also has a tasting room in Healdsburg) (Russian River Valley, Forestville)

  • Started in 1994 by Don & Jennifer Jackson (as in Kendall-Jackson)-Hartford.
  • They have the Hartford Court and Hartford Brand – Hartford reserved for zinfandel since Jennifer wasn’t crazy about Zin! Funny because the high zin ratings is what brought us there.
  • Cozy homey tasting room with a nice terrace.
  • Grapes from RRV, coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley
  • Production: 12-15K cases with RRV pinot and chardonnays lead the numbers (for restaurants)
  • Jeff Stuart – winemaker
  • Most are single vineyard wines at the winery
  • Thicker skins lead to more tannins
  • 2011 sub-par fruit – very selective with fruit then
  • Arrendell vineyard – one of the oldest pinot vineyards (their 2012 Arrendell pinot scored 97 pts)
  • 2012 and 2013 vintages – Parker and Gallioni provided high scores
  • Our attendant had such a colorful way of describing the wines – really enjoyed the commentary


  • 2011 Fog Dance Vineyard Chardonnay (2.5-3*) – Green Valley (sub AVA in RRV) – honey, earth, cooler climate, limey
  • 2011 Far Coast Vineyard Chardonnay (3*) – more Burgundy style – French oak and some neutral oak, Native yeast for the most part, different power, nice minerality, apricot, yellow apple, no orange rind
  • 2012 Marin City Pinot (2*) – a bit gamey, forest floor, light, though fuller than the 2011
  • 2013 Lands End Sonoma Coast Pinot – blend of coast vineyards, some Far Coast and Seascape, higher production
  • 2012 Hailey’s Block Pinot (3*) – Robert Parker 96 pts, dijon clones?, Green Valley – different soil, showed us a sample,
  • 2011 Jennifer’s RRV Pinot (2*) – near Sebastopol, great concentration, this wine wants to go to reduction, they make sure to aerate, there’s a ‘funk’ to it – Asian spices, savory notes, anise, flora, aroma not pleasing actually, light subtle.  2011 – cooler year, zins were more pinot-like, from Wood Rd between Santa Rosa and Windsor. Zins are processed like pinot – French and American oak.
  • 2011 Dina’s Zin (2.5*) – a bit jammy and bright
  • 2011 Fanucchi – Wood Rd zin, more complex, a bit more spicey/peppery

Similar to Hobbs, they manage/control their areas of the vineyards they source grapes from (but don’t own)

Iron Horse (Sonoma, Russian River Valley)

  • Drop dead gorgeous hillside views
  • Specialty is sparkling wine, all method champaignoise
  • Owner’s last name is Sterling but they could not use the name due to Sterling Vineyards over in Calistoga. A train (often called the Iron Horse) used to run through the property and a horse weather vane was dug up on site during construction and the name was solidified.


2010 Ocean Reserve (2.5*)
2011 Wedding Cuvee (3*)
2010 Classic Vintage Brut – green apple, cooler weather, no maceration
Brut LD (3*) – aged 7-8 years, more yeasty, fresh baked bread
2010 Russian Cuvee – Gorbachev meeting, used to be named Summit Cuvee, served for every administration since Reagan
Dosage Brut X (3*) – driest sparkling wine, rare, 500 cases
2007 Brut Rose

Pinots and chards – 100-200 cases/yr – only 2 of each are distributed


Ridge (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma)

  • I’ve been a fan of Ridge zins for quite a few years after getting introduced to it during my first role at Deloitte.  One of the partners James was friends with one of the founders and now I often look for it on sale at Binny’s.
  • Founded in 1962 in Cupertino, they’ve used the same labels (which focus on providing information as opposed to marketing and branding) ever since
  • Their Monte Bello wine placed 5th at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and 1st place at the 2006 re-enactment (simultaneous tastings in Napa  and in London.)
  • Monte Bello Vineyard is non-contiguous plots north of Cupertino, close to the ocean, up above the fog. Talked about how the Bonnie Doon wine ended up producing port, ice wine, etc. because it was in the fog and couldn’t grow grapes that Ridge can. Torres planted here originally in the 1800s.
  • Had 100% petit verdot (may be only the 2nd time we’ve seen that)
  • Geyserville vines planted in 1882.
  • Anderson Valley – boontling – lingo of boon, a way of communicating bootlegging language
  • Bodega means winery
  • Ridge very into American oak, esp Minnesota – there are regional differences, tighter grain, hard, some space, not as oaky as in Missouri
  • We joined the club – 1st 3 in the spring, 2nd 3 in the fall:


2012 Monte Bello Chardonnay – blend of old and new oak
2013 Paso Robles Zin (3*)
2012 Pagani Ranch Zin (3*)
2012 Lytton Springs (2*) – plum aromas, very agreeable, not showing as well it will be in the future
2007 Lytton Spring (3*) – 30% blend – makes it ageable, 15-25 years, most zins are only 3-5 years (carignan – hard to find (7% here), grafted over from older zin vines – provides earthy/fleshy nature)
2012 Estate Cab (3*) – baby Monte Bello cab and merlot
2011 Monte Bello aged 100% new oak
2011 Merlot (2.5*)
2011 Torre Petit Verdot (earthy aroma)

This was winery #57!






One thought on “March Wine Madness – Part 1

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