Sorry to all the Wisconsin Badger fans out there as this is being published as March Madness comes to a sad end….
I promised that we would deliver on acceleration in our wine visits and we have delivered – as of today, Tues 3/31 we have visited 101 wineries or tasting rooms! That is in a period of 74 days for me and about 64 days for Dave. Not bad at all and it was all made a lot easier through tasting the wine and spitting it out! Otherwise we may need liver transplants. We are certainly ready for a rest, but plan on sharing some of our favorite wineries with the Pipins and Lunns who start their arrivals tomorrow!! We are excited for our Chicago reunion!
I recognize there’s quite a bit of detail included in the wine entries – to help facilitate faster reading I’ve added summaries to the bottom of each entry, you can feel free to skip to that for the ‘gist’ of the visit! This post will take you through Winery 58 (White Rock) – 73 (Alpha Omega.) Enjoy!
White Rock Vineyards (Soda Canyon/Stag’s Leap District)
Located on the Soda Canyon hillside, at the base of Stag’s Leap Range, White Rock was a true treat! We had an informative and personal tour, and most importantly, enjoyed all of their wines, not just one or two. These wines and experiences are few and far between. Henry, the owner of the winery, gave us a tour of the vineyard, barrel & tank room, and tasting. Henry looked like an older French Jim Simpson (those of you from Chicago will appreciate the reference) – Henry was super tall, thin, and had a bit of an accent, but definitely not French. Henry used to be an economist and professor and gave it all up to tend to the grape!
The winery was built in 1870 and didn’t make it through Prohibition in the 20s. At one point a famous polo player bought the property, ripped up the vines, and put in a polo field. Henry and his family bought the winery in the 70s, and 1986 was their first vintage.
Production – typically 3K cases, this past year it was 4K cases due to a very bountiful harvest and this harvest in Sept is likely to be plentiful too. It’s also likely to be an early harvest since the winter was so warm – the prolonged warmer temps trick the vines into an earlier growth cycle. They use no herbicides or pesticides.
Much of our talk focused on weather and its impact on wine production. There are region #s that designate average temperatures, 1-3 (1 being the cooler Carneros AVA and 3 being the much warmer Calistoga AVA.) White Rock is hinged between Region 1 and 2. Henry plants his Chardonnay grapes in a lower, cooler area in the vineyard and Cabernet a bit higher. He wants the cab to struggle on purpose – that’s another key theme we hear a lot of – vines struggling to find water deep in the ground makes for better grapes. Henry seemed to be very concerned about a late frost – it is particularly concerning because much of the vineyards have early ‘bud break’ which means that the annual grape lifecycle has begun and frost can put a real expensive and disruptive dent in that process. Henry told us that he has a frost alarm in his bedroom. He mitigates this risk somewhat by postponing pruning – helps to reduce viruses and postpone budding. Strong winds can be a problem as well since they can knock buds off the vines as well. Heat spikes can also have a huge impact on quality. Above 95 degrees vines begin to shut down, pores shut, grapes become unbalanced as sugar levels go up and acid levels can decrease.
The name White Rock is based on the vineyard being planted on a huge amount of volcanic rock – the vines actually go through the porous pumice rock. There is a very thin layer of soil on top of the white rock. Hillside grapes tend to have more tannins than in the valley – not sure I would agree with that statement
A bit about production – like Paul Hobbs, White Rock (and many other wineries) whole-cluster ferment their Chardonnay grapes (stems aren’t removed.) Red wines across the board are all de-stemmed. Chards are 100% barrel fermented (no stainless tanks) in light new oak, Burgundian-style. Most wines are released/sold about a year and a half after harvest. .
We moved into the barrel, tank, and bottle aging room. We learned how they regularly turn their barrels to mix up leftover yeast and proteins to produce more density and character in the wine. We also learned what ‘racking’ (or filtering or fining) refers to – another common practice from what we are hearing. Racking refers to how the wine aging in the barrels is poured back into the fermentation tanks and dead yeast cells, leaves, etc. are siphoned from the juice. This seems like a pretty labor-intensive process especially since they do it every 2-3 months.
Oak can soften up tannins – new oak can change the makeup of tannins. Henry elaborated that longer tannings from oak produce reduce the ‘pucker factor’ of tannins, while shorter tannins increase the dry ‘pucker factor’.
A special treat was seeing where they bottle age their wines (cabs are aged for 2 yrs before release) – they are stacked in a honeycomb pattern in a variety of niches throughout the cave. Each niche holds 4000 bottles! Jackpot!
Henry’s cave survived the earthquake with no issues – the oldest area was reinforced with gunite in an ‘upside down pool’ formation. My Mom will appreciate the reference to a ‘gunite’ pool and a snobby pool salesperson back home!
All wines are ‘Estate’ which means they are from the winery’s own vineyard (not sourced from another grower), and the wine is bottled on site. They were in the process of bottling up their wine during our visit and they had an issue with a bottling truck not being able to make it over a very small bridge to get up to the winery. We passed the truck on our way up to the winery.
Our tasting – wines are all reasonably priced, considering the quality
- 2012 Estate Chardonnay 3* – can be aged for 10-15 years, nice acid levels stand up well to food. Secondary fermentation/malolactic fermentation (in which tart malic acid is converted to softer, less crisp, more buttery lactic acid) reduces acid levels in wine (deacidification.) The acidity change affects the ageability of the wine and does make it more susceptible to spoilage.
- I noticed their label – very classic, more Old World than New – the label is based off an historical sketch of the vineyard (believe the artist was from Chicago)
- Reserve Chardonnay – made only 2 barrels, sold out
- 2011 Claret 3* – loved aroma of rich fruit with tannins on the finish – cab, merlot, cab franc, petit verdot blend
- 2009 Laureate Cabernet 3* – hillside top
- 2011 Cabernet – smooth, low tannins, cooler year (a very infamous, brutal year for many of the vineyards), not a fruit bomb, delicate – they purposely lower the tannin levels by pressing the grapes earlier before finishing fermentation
- We’ll have to visit their website for the Syrah and the Viognier being released this summer
SUMMARY: White Rock is right up there in the top 5-10 experiences and top quality wines we’ve sampled in Napa. Henry made our visit very special and we really thought his 4000 bottle cave ‘niches’ were one of the most unique sites we’ve seen!
- Groth has a colorful mission style building that makes a statement. Inside there’s a variety of interesting, modern artwork.
- Production: 50K cases
- Their claim to fame is they were the first American Winery awarded 100 points by Robert Parker for their 1985 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Groth maintains an “Insectary” which is located to the side of the actual winery. Over 40 different species of plants were selectively chosen based on each plant’s ability to attract beneficial insects which then act as natural predators to the harmful insects within the actual vineyards.
- We didn’t really have a chance to talk much to our host (who described herself as a glorified beverage dispenser, in a light funny way) to get much of the back story on Groth, so this will be a short entry – whew!
2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – 25% steel/25% oak
2013 Chardonnay 3* – Yountville, 15% cooler there than in Oakville, 25% neutral oak, no MLF (malolactic fermentation)
2011 Oakville Cabernet 2.5* – including 12% merlot
2011 Reserve Cabernet 3* – has a patented larger cork than the standard corks used – their cork is bigger than yours!
2002 Cabernet 3*, 24% merlot
SUMMARY: Groth was a pleasant relaxing visit, a few wines were outstanding with high prices to match, I’d rank Groth in the 4th quartile – in the 75-100.
Vine Cliff (Oakville winery, tasting room in St Helena)
We’ve been meaning to visit for some time, and very glad we did. The tasting room is well-appointed and comfortable and they have a nice outside patio as well. We went for both a reserve and regular tasting.
2012 Sur Lies Chardonnay 3* – Carneros grapes, fermented in cement eggs
2012 Proprietress Reserve Chardonnay 2.5-3* – Carneros grapes, 60% new oak, 40% neutral
2012 Cabernet Oakville 2.5-3* –
2012 Cabernet 16 Rows – blend of cab sav, cab franc, malbec and petit verdot
2012 Oakville Zinfandel 3* – same varietals as above, more cabernet sauvignon
2004 and 2012 were some of the best vintages
SUMMARY: Vine Cliff has a classy well-appointed tasting room with some of the best cabs and zins we’ve had in Napa. No reservations required makes it an easy stop on Rt 29 as well. I would rank this within our top 25, primarily for the wine quality.
V Sattui (St Helena)
- We were going for a bit of a record here – motivated to up our tasting #s after we adopted spitting to help enhance the flavor experience and maintain some sobriety!
- Enjoyed some very special treatment from one of the managers after our host mentioned to him that we were writing about our wine experiences. We had a great chat about how he used to own a winery that he sold – Second Chance, now Neal Family Vineyards. He provided us with some additional recommendations (Stagecoach, Scarecrow, Hagafen for silky smooth cabs, Van Der Heyden.) He had a bottle of Cabernet from Morisoli Vineyards opened up just for us – that was not shared with others in the tasting room, and he took it home with him. Very nice!
- Our attendant Jordan was helpful, very high energy, and gave us some information about an inn in VT that is owned by family and that Norman Rockwell used to live in. Jordan has also been with V Sattui for many years.
- V Sattui is a bit of a factory in that they produce a staggering number of wines, a huge number of couples and families descend on this winery daily, and they are known for onsite wine sales only
- Atlas Peak – dormant volcano, small berries with a pulp to skin ratio of 1:1
- Inglenook was one of 5 sacramental producers, they have a huge 5-day party with other producers
- 2012 Reserve Chardonnay
- 2013 Chardonnay Napa Valley (Yountville)
- 2013 Dry Riesling
- Zinfandel, Quaglia, Ancient-Vine 2* – 100+ year old fines
- Zinfandel, Crow Ridge, Ancient-Vine 2.5*
- Cabernet – Mt Veeder 2.5*
- Cabernet, Preston Vineyard 3* – stressed Rutherford vines make for a great wine!
- Cabernet, Morisoli Vineyard 3* – 2 brothers, special blend from the Rutherford bench (very famous location for cabs)
- 2012 Syrah
- Angelica 3* – brandy and muscat blend, similar to white port, lasts for 20-25 years
- Madeira – sourdough starter (the owner Vittorio Sattui used madeira for making – can make a great reduction sauce with this, w/garlic, shallots, mush, and butter)
SUMMARY: Visit V Sattui for a memorable experience – you can taste a wide range of wines poured by very friendly and attentive staff, purchase lunch or snacks to enjoy in their family-friendly picnic area, and enjoy the lively atmosphere. We had a great time talking with one of their managers who treated us like VIPs. Our opinions on the wine were mixed – we really enjoyed some, but not others. I would rank V Sattui in the 50-75 range out of our Top 100.
School House Vineyard (Spring Mountain)
- We loved how John (the owner) met us with his jeep and adorable dog right off Spring Mountain Rd so we wouldn’t get lost navigating around their construction site (they are building a new home on the property that they can semi-retire in)
- This was probably the most intimate and homey wine tasting experience we had, because literally we sat on the patio of the owners’ home!
- Lovely couple John and Nancy are going to be transitioning operations and ownership of the winery to another couple shortly
- A bit about the history – the winery is named after the 1880s one-room schoolhouse that used to be on the property but burnt to the ground in the mid-80s. 1500 ft elevation on Spring Mountain with a cool hillside microclimate. One of the first wineries on Spring Mountain and land originally purchased by John’s father starting in 1940. Over time the vineyard was in a state of disrepair and in 1991 John took it over from his father and put in a lot of work to revive it.
- 17-acre vineyard is dry-farmed, which means not irrigated (we are hearing more of this at other vineyards)
- Production is 1200-1600 cases / yr – this may be the smallest production winery we’ve visited to-date (we love that!)
- Like others, including White Rock, their production increased quite a bit in 2013 – up to 2000 cases
- John and Nancy’s focus is on the vineyard and they contract out the winery work (fermentation, aging, blending) to winery partners, including one of our favs, Pride (right up the mountain) and Stony Hill Vineyard. This may be a first for us as well – many wineries source grapes from other vineyards and there’s plenty of outsourcing on the bottling front, but this is the first we’ve heard of winery contracting, though I’m sure many small farmers/producers do this as well.
- I liked how they had a brochure about the winery and their current releases – even the little cloth drawstring bags we took our bottles home in were custom-printed
- We learned that Pinot and Chardonnay tend to bud around the same time, earliest ‘bud break – then comes Syrah – then Grenache, Zin is usually last
- Saw the x-rays of the hip fusion the owner had (which is causing him some mobility issues and discomfort) – lots of metal! Dave has never seen anything quite like it!
- 2012 Chardonnay 2.5* – terraced vineyard below their property (likely the coolest location), originally propogated from the Wente “small berry” clone. 9 barrels produced.
- 2011 Pinot Noir 2.5* – In the 40s Andre Tchelistcheff encouraged Napa growers to grow Cabernet – in particular he encouraged Inglenook to replace his Rutherford Pinto with Cabernet which was better suited for the land. Inglenook gave its Pinot budwood, originally secured from the infamous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (remember DRC from HdV?) to John. John planted it in 1953 and thus began their history with pinot. 13 barrels produced.
- 2011 Zin Blend, Mescolanza (Spanish for blend) 2.5-3* – peppery, full mouth feel – ‘mixed blacks’ field blend common in the 1890s – zin, petite sirah, and carignane – the wine is a mix of older and younger vines. 5 barrels produced, production low due to tough weather conditions.
- 2011 Syrah Blend, Mescolanza 3* – originating from a new field block in partnership with Pride producing this Rhone-style field blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. Reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not filtered/fined. 19 barrels produced.
SUMMARY: School House is a special winery run by exceptional people. We enjoyed the experience more than the wine, but this is the kind of business we like to support! School House ranks approx. in the top 50-75 range out of our Top 100.
Schweiger (Spring Mountain)
- One of our top 5 experiences, right up there with Pride in terms of quality wines, attentive service, insider’s tour, including plenty of 1:1 time with the owner – Fred Schweiger!
- First, you cruise up to the gates and get buzzed in, driving through the vineyard and its gorgeous rolling hills. Then you park and are immediately greeted with a taste of white wine! An air of warm welcome as soon you step out of the car!
- The views are spectacular and the tasting room and outdoor patios allow you to be able to soak up that view, the sun, and the wine – what could be better?
- In keeping with our desire to get inside scoop we opted for a seat at the bar. We immediately discovered that 2 attendants (including Erin, the communications director) used to live in Chicago – we talked about where we lived and about Hot Doug’s (the best hot dog joint ever in Chicago that was in hot water at one time for selling illegal foie gras!) closing! It’s a small world for sure.
- We enjoyed hearing about Erin’s blog where she showcases horrible Yelp reviews – you know, the ones where unreasonable customers don’t even visit a business, but give it a bad review. Though I must confess I over-rely on Trip Advisor myself (though I rarely post reviews)
- 55 acres/35 planted – land purchased in 1966 for $250/acre
- Sells fruit to others wineries including Stag’s Leap, Newton
- Production – 5-6K cases/yr
- Schweiger is a story of a family-run business with heart and hard work.
- Fred was a building contractor – he bought the property in 1961, in the early 70s recession Fred kept his building crew to clear the vineyards (while this wasn’t their forte, they were happy to work). The first loan was at a 21% interest rate – wow, we will never see those rates again in our lifetime. Started the winery in 1972 and works at the vineyard everyday. A few employees have been at Schweiger for 35 years, have full benefits, etc. (this must be rare)
- His son Andy attended UC Davis for viticultural studies and he’s been the winemaker since 1994.
- When Rivers Ran Red – Prohibition – agents emptied thousands of gallons of wine into rivers and creeks – gun battles erupted as a result as well. OK, people, Dave and I talk to many wineries about Prohibition and it took us until winery #63 to hear this juicy tale?? Glad we heard it!
- Fred does not believe in cover crops – you could tell he thought it was bunk J though he does use straw to help with insulation, refracting heat, and to reduce erosion.
- Their vines are spaced wider apart. When you provide more space you get more filtered sun on the fruit. As bud break continues in a few weeks you won’t even see the spaces. The leaves do need to be cut back as they’ll impart a green pepper like taste in the cab grapes.
- There are a variety of birdboxes pirched all over the vineyard to attract the bluebirds, the vineyard’s ‘natural insecticide’. No perches though – birds will stay away.
- Their vineyard is all volcanic soil and you can see marks made by gas being released through the rocks.
- Some of their roots go down 25 feet, vineyard is dry-farmed, cane pruning process is costly (3x compared to how it’s done on the Rutherford bench.) We spent some time in the cabernet vines – each plant has 42 buds, 2 clusters per bud.
- Yield is about 6 tons/acre – less quantity, more quality
- No interventional processes
- Dr Richard Smart from NZ is a viticultural expert whose hourly rate is $800/hr. He consulted with a variety of wineries in Napa. Fred showed him his trellising system and Smart ended up including it in his book!
- Fred also invented a custom rake for his plow that he’s considering patenting.
- Focus is on food first then wine to complement the food, not the opposite
- We ventured into the barrel room – you can see the toast level based on burn marks. They have a machine that purifies the air, kills any fungus, and makes the air almost neutral in terms of scent – you really couldn’t smell the oak from the barrels. Those with allergies like to hang out there!
- They do hand punch downs
- Like Kuleto they have a fire truck on the premises as well
- Next up was some barrel tasting with a visiting crew of industry people
- We had a great time, didn’t miss the meat/cheese pairing we had ordered! J
2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – Kenwood, Sonoma Valley 2012 Chardonnay 3* – from estate, one of the highest elevation chards
Barrel tasting: Cab Franc (pinot of Spring Mountain) and Cabernet 2009 Estate Cabernet 3*
2009 Family Cuvee – blend including cab and petite sirah
2010 Dedication 3* – blend of Cab, merlot, cab franc, malbec
SUMMARY: Schweiger was spectacular all around – sensational staff, welcoming owner, exceptional experience, and every wine would be welcome in our growing collection! It is truly a rare find and a winery we plan to stay friends with for a long time! Schweiger has earned a spot in the top 5 of our Top 100!
Robert Keenan (Spring Mountain)
- Production: 14K cases
- Winery started by retired insurance exec Robert Kennan
- Owned by 2nd generation Michael Keenan
- Known for merlot – they’ve been producing it since the 70s
- Laura – attendant has been with RK for 19 years, lives on premises
2012 Chardonnay 2* – some fruit from Trefethen, most grown here, barrel fermented for 4 months
2011 Zinfandel, NV 2.5*
2011 Carneros Merlot 2*
2011 Spring Mountain Merlot 2.5*
2011 Cab 3*
2009 Mernet Reserve (merlot, cab, cab franc)
Cab Franc – 2.5*
2011 Cabernet NV spring Mountain 3*
2011 Syrah 2.5-3*
SUMMARY: Robert Keenan provides a very intimate 1:1 tasting experience in an elegant hillside tasting room. We enjoyed quite a few of the wines tasted, though in general we were not wow’d. I would place it in the top 50-75 wineries out of 100.
Grgich Hills (Rutherford)
- Knowledgeable attendant and very patient as I took notes (which I always get self-conscious with people watching me write or type!)
- Hills Brothers (coffee company) partnered with Mike Grgich on the winery
- Style of wine not exactly for us, but we are glad we stopped as it is an important part of Napa history
- 2012 Chardonnay 1.5* Montrachet style – Burgundy, more acidic, good for pairing with food, 10 months in French oak on the lees (sur lies). Spinning the barrels helps to curb the oaky flavor, increases complexity and acidity. Red wines are racked.
- 2012 Fume Blanc – not really French, no stainless, no concrete, French oak, could taste green peppers
- 2011 Zin side by side w/2010 Plavac Mali, Grgic Vina, Croatia (whole cluster fermentation)
- 2010 Merlot – cab lover’s merlot
- 2011 Cabernet – blended with merlot and petit verdot
SUMMARY: While we found our attendant to be very helpful, knowledgeable and friendly, and Grgich has a huge place in Napa history, the wines were not a good match for our preferences. Grgich Hills will either be ranked in the 75-100 band of the Top 100 or it may not make the list.
- Dave and I had a Franciscan cabernet our first night in Charleston and decided to check out the winery here
- Started in 1972 by a San Francisco businessman
- They own vineyards around Silver Oak
- Too much wine to taste as Dave did the Mt Veeder Winery (Wines with Altitude’) menu and I did the Franciscan reserve tasting – they all started to blend together and taste similar
Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay 2.5*
2011 Cabernet Oakville (some malbec)
2012 Cabernet – Dave blend
2011 Winemaker’s Reserve Cab
Elevation 1550 Cabernet 3* (blend)
2011 Clos Reserve 2-2.5*
2010 Rosenquist Vineyard Cabernet 2.5*
2010 Magnificat sourced grapes
2010 Mt Veeder Reserve
SUMMARY: Franciscan has a large and attractive tasting room on Rt 29 that does not require an appointment, making it a convenient stop. The service was attentive and the wines were all of good quality. Though many of the larger more corporate wineries, including Franciscan, on the strip lack that certain something special we’ve experienced in the smaller family-owned and boutique operations. Very few of the wines here really spoke to us I suppose. I expect to rank them in the top 75-100.
Whitehall Lane (Rutherford)
- Unexpected treat
- Top notch wines at very reasonable prices – definitely a wine club candidate
- Casual relaxed atmosphere
- Talked a bit about MLF and how it’s not really fermentation
- Talked about how white wines actually have more sulfites than red – it helps to clarify white wines, red wines don’t need them as much
- Winemaker is cool, calm, humble
- Krug – oldest winery in the valley, Sutter Home too (named after father-in-law)
- Whitehall Lane owned by the Leonardini family – retired car leasing executive
- Production: just under 50K cases (85% – wholesale, 15% on site – kind of the opposite of most of our experiences to-date)
- Our attendant Frederick was very helpful and provided us with a wealth of information
- Highly recommend!
- 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 1.5-2* – with semillon blend
- 2012 Chardonnay Carneros 2.5* – 2/3 cold malolactic fermentation, 25% steel, 25% new French oak, 50% neutral oak
- 2013 Pinot Noir, Carneros 2.5* – 2 clones, 30% new and 70% neutral French oak
- 2011 Cabernet NV 3* – loved it, drinkable now or in 4 years, 90% cab with merlot and malbec
- 2010 Reserve Cab NV 2.5%
- 2011 Rutherford Millenium
- 2012 Dessert wine
SUMMARY: Whitehall Lane was an unexpected treat on Rt29/Main Street! While it’s a relatively larger operation with pretty extensive distribution, the experience was very personalized, more like the boutiques. The majority of the wines were not only top-notch, they were very reasonably-priced. Whitehall Lane will likely land near 25 in our Top 100.
VGS Chateau Potelle (St Helena)
- We were referred to Chateau Potelle by my friend Tom, and a great recommendation this was! Funny thing is that when Tom recommended it, I thought ‘yes that sounds very familiar’ – well no wonder it is about 2 blocks away from our gym – we pass it (almost 🙂 every day!
- Don’t let the modest exterior trick you – the winery is a class act. Our outdoor tasting made me feel like I was in Nantucket with a colorful tent, whimsical chandelier. Their attention to marketing is evident in the collateral, pre-printed wine tasting placemat with matching food pairings. Coming from a training / visual background I appreciated the planning, forethought, and production they put into their tasting experience. Quite unique here in Napa I must say.
- The owner, Jean Noelle, is originally from Bordeaux and he initially came to Napa to be a ‘wine spy’ – the French government was interested to know what was going on in Napa – and sent some undercover wine experts investigate. You may recall the Judgement of Paris in 1976 – it really ticked off the French! Jean Noelle ended up staying!
- The business started on Mt Veeder – they ended up selling to Kendall Jackson and they maintain contracts with a variety of mountain growers
- Concrete, steel, and oak used for aging
- Production: only 5K, direct to consumer (when they were on Mt Veeder they were at 30K)
- 2007 nice year – so is 2008 and 2009
- Wildcat Vineyard
- 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5*
- 2013 Rivera Rose – similar to south of France style
- 2012 VGS Chardonnay 3*- put them on the map, 100% French oak for 12 months, #1 seller, 60% malolalctic fermentation, Burgundian style
- 2012 The Illegitimate 3* – cab/merlot blend – its namesake refers to how this would not be legal to do in Bordeaux
- 2012 VGS Zin 3.5* – nice aging wine, hand harvested and sorted, picked on 3 occasions to harvest at the height of ripeness
- 2012 VGS Syrah 2.5* – 45’ root system, 31 year old vines, steepest slope on Bald Mtn (Mt Veeder)
- 2012 VGS Cabernet 3.5* – Lisa Chiu’s property, French oak aging, extended 1 yr aging in bottle
SUMMARY: Chateau Potelle is a unique, elegant, and memorable winery behind a very modest exterior ‘wrapping’! The 1:1 service and the attention to detail in the set-up of the tasting enhanced what didn’t need enhancing: quality, handcrafted wines with a heavy French influence. Next time we will do the food pairing! This is a winery that we would definitely consider ordering from again, even though the pricepoints were a bit hefty! Chateau Potelle will rank close to 25 in our Top 100.
This was a same-day addition to our afternoon tasting at Duckhorn, and what a pleasant surprise it was. We had some of the best wines of our trip here! One of the oldest wineries in the Valley (original structure built in 1886, with an official legal opening in 1933.) Olive trees on the property are more than 100 years old. Certified organic, 39 acres
Ehlers is owned by a heart foundation, Le Duc – if you look at the E in their logo on its side it’s a heart – aww, how sweet! Their tasting room had such an inviting setup – lots of comfy couches with personalized welcome signs on the tables. The room also had character – plenty of unique artwork and rust stains on the floor (as up until 2002 the tasting room was the winery and held their tanks and barrels.)
Our attendant added a nice Prohibition story to our collection – sit back and listen to the tale of ‘grape jelly’…. During Prohibition many wineries sold what they called ‘grape jelly’ – it was grape concentrate labeled with instructions on how to NOT make wine – don’t add water, don’t add yeast, don’t heat it up, etc.! Creative!
More wine tidbits we picked up (apologies if some of this is repetitive):
- Cab Franc + Sauvignon Blanc are parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon. Makes sense. Dave wonders why it’s not called Franc Blanc – maybe he’s onto something there
- Cab Franc gives the power to Cabernet (interesting given how smooth it tastes.)
- Check out August Briggs for another 100% petit verdot (recently won a professional blind tasting at Ehler’s) – it’s rare to come across 100% petit verdot (it’s usually a blending varietal), 10 or fewer wineries out of ~90 to-date have one. Reverie (Diamond Mountain) has one too.
2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – all neutral oak, green apple, nice balance of acid and fruit
2012 Merlot 2.5* – round mouth feel, fruity, robust
2012 Cabernet 3* – 85% cab 8% merlot, 7% cab franc – subtle, early harvest, lower alcohol
2012 Cab Franc 2-2.5* – earth, leather, pepper, tobacco, a little drier than the cab, more subtle, less fruit
2012 Petit Verdot 3* – blueberry, nutmeg, clove, great with Thai curry
2012 ‘1886’ Cabernet 3* – 95% cab, 2% merlot, 2% cab franc, and 1% petit verdot – their flagship cabernet, one of our absolute favorites,
2011 was an incredible vintage, grapes are from the St Helena bench, rocky, blend of hillside and valley (the best of both worlds!)
Rose – stainless, bleed off from cab franc
SUMMARY: An unexpected delight, and so close to home! Ehlers has a unique history, an inviting tasting room, and most importantly incredible elegant wines that will have us ordering and returning in the future! We loved their 1886! It will be ranked as close to the Top 25 as possiblet!
Duckhorn (St Helena)
Welcome winery #70! Dave and I came to Duckhorn during our 2-day stay a few years ago and it was one of our most memorable visits. They have a gorgeous porch where you enjoy a seated and attentive tasting and take in the view of the vineyard and their garden. It’s relaxed, the wines are poured side-by-side you can compare and contrast.
A few years ago we discovered The Discussion and loved it so much we ordered more from their website! While we still enjoyed it this trip, we weren’t as enamored – probably because we’ve had so many incredible wines across so many wineries, many at more reasonable price points. The competition is tough for our taste buds! He he…
Duckhorn was founded in 1976 and had humble beginnings – Dan Duckhorn and his wife used to sell their wine out of a mobile trailer – kind of a wine truck before food trucks became the rage.
Duckhorn is known for being a merlot pioneer in the valley.
We heard an interesting story about Three Palms Vineyard where Duckhorn has exclusive rights to all the Upton Brother’s grapes. Three Palms used to be home to the socialite Lillian Coit (of Coit Tower). Lillie sounds like quite a character. She had a special relationships with firefighters since, at the age of 15, she saw a fire engine struggling to make its way up Telegraph Hill and called out to by standers to help out. That same fire department adopted her as a mascot, made a special uniform for her. According to Duckhorn’s website, she was rescued by a firefighter from a burning hotel when she was 7. Either way, she loved firefighters! Enough said! I read online that she used to dress like a man so she could go gambling – hopefully she took some money from the boys playing poker – ha ha! After her death, two memorials were built in her name. One was Coit Tower, and the other was a sculpture depicting three firemen, one of them carrying a woman in his arms. Lillie is today the matron saint of San Francisco firefighters.
Dan accidentally killed one of the 3 palm trees in this vineyard when he nailed some sort of sports banner to it – it rained, the water froze inside the trunk and killed it. He planted a new one in its place.
2012 Merlot Atlas Peak 1.5-2* – very light
2012 Merlot Stout Vineyard 2.5* – more robust
2011 Cabernet Patzimaro – lighter, earthy, minerality
2010 Cabernet Howell Mountain 3* – aged for 24 months in 95% new French oak, aged for an extra year in the bottle, 2010: later, milder season is believed to result in elegant wines and balanced acidity, 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Merlot, 1.5% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot 2011 The Discussion 3* – Bordeaux blend, 85% cab, 5% merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, aged in 100% new French oak for 24 months
SUMMARY: Duckhorn solidly delivers as it has in the past – the special tasting setting and service is one of the best in the Valley and the wines are classic and stand the test of time. Duckhorn will place in the Top 25-50 of Our Top 100.
Shafer (Stags Leap)
Visiting Shafer requires advance planning given they are only open Mon-Fri and because of its reputation, it tends to book up early. The setting, like many other wineries, is picturesque, perched on a Stags Leap hillside. We started with an overview discussion outside, learning the following:
- The vineyard was planted in 1860 and in the 20s Italian immigrant Scansi re-plants during Prohibition and sells fruit to home winemakers
- Shafer founder John Shafer moved his family here from Hinsdale IL in 1973 and bought the property (they almost bought the Spottswoode property) – they chose the hillside for Old World planting – $1000/acre at the time
- His son Doug started working in the winery as a ‘barrel rat’ in high school, was inspired by the business, and attended UC Davis’s enology and viticulture program. Doug is the only family employee while his sister Libby owns a vineyard.
- Shafer’s winemaker Elias Hernandez (one of his sons was my attendant over at T Vine) has been with the business for 31 harvests – this could be a record. Elias has received numerous awards and accolades for his accomplishments. Shafer hired him fresh out of the UC Davis program. His family was in the wine business (Mom worked at Schramsberg, he went to college on a jazz trumpet scholarship)
Production: 32K cases
First vintage: 1978
Acreage: 210, 54 planted, 5 vineyard locations
Sustainable farming practices – no chemicals or pesticides, use cover crops, perches throughout to attract owls and hawks (who keep harmful rodents/insects in check), 100% solar powered
Shafer has received strong scores and ratings from Robert Parker who has called it ‘one of the world’s greatest wineries’
In the 60s cab and chardonnay came on the market – prior to that zins were the main sellers in CA. French Laundry was actually a Laundromat back in the day.
Doug Shafer the president popped by for a quick visit – given the number of current and former Chicago residents we hinted that perhaps opening up an old vintage may be in order – but he didn’t bite! Speaking of bite, and bark – luckily I’m not referring to the wine (though we do hear very odd wine aroma references!), the Shafers are dog lovers with an adorable golden retriever and John (the founder, Doug’s dad) memorialized his old dog Tucker (who was featured in the Wine Dogs book) with a beautiful bronze sculpture ‘greeting’ you near the entrance. John created this piece at the ripe age of 84. He is now 94 years young and I believe still works around the winery nearly every day. Perhaps this is the secret to a long healthy life – work. At least this seems to be a secret sauce for more than a few of the wineries we’ve visited (Storybook Mountain is another example.)
The tasting room was a well-appointed and modern conference room with a view. Tasted 5 wines, all are distributed – that’s unique – and appreciated, since it’s so difficult to get in here! All wines are also ready to drink, but most can be aged for quite a long time. With aging you lose more of the fruit flavor, the earthy flavors and aromas emerge, the texture becomes more silky as the tannins mellow out, and the wine can have more complexity.
- 2013 Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros) 3* – 75/25 new Fr oak/SS. No malolactic fermentation (malic acid has the citrus and green apple flavors while lactic acid has the oaky buttery flavors). Instead, they stir the ‘lees’ (yeast) regularly to give the wine a creamy mouth feel. Can be aged for 4-5 years.
- 2012 Merlot Napa Valley – most fruit is from the School Bus vineyard (there was an old school bus there used for target practice.) Merlot put Shafer on the map. Merlot is a finicky grape and therefore the vines are tended with much care. 7K cases produced. Age for 8-12 years ($6 in 1986)
- 2012 One Point Five 2.5-3* – 95% cab, 4% malbec, 1% petit verdot. Lighter tannings. Named to commemorate one and a half generations of family partnership at Shafer.
- Hillside Select (in 1981 it was $11)
- 2011 Relentless 2.5* Syrah (91%) Petite Sirah blend (petite sirah has the thickest skin, powerful tannings, you rarely see 100% petite sirah because of its hard tannins) – named after Elias the winemaker given his relentless pursuit of quality, 2008 vintage named WS Wine of the Year in 2012. Can be aged 15-18 years. Gamey, meaty.
- 2010 Hillside Select 3* – 100% cab, 100 pt score, volcanic soil, struggling vines, seasawing temps retains acidity and balance in the wine
In 1979 John wrapped his first Cabernet barrels in electric blankets to warm them up and get them through secondary fermentation during a very cold Jan. I remember when electric blankets were all the rage!
We learned about the ‘11 year apostrophe battle’ between Stags Leap Cellars and Stags Leap Winery who fighting over the rights to use Stags Leap – the judgement was that Stag’s Leap Winery got the ‘ before the s while Stags’ Leap Cellars got it after. We also asked about the interesting gold-domed building visible from Shafer’s driveway and we learned that it was the Quixote Winery whose buildings have no 90 degree angles and lots of color, owned by a Chinese investor. We drove past it on our way out and it was memorable, reminded us of the Gaudi architecture in Spain.
They also provide you with a very educational tasting guide which includes information about their history, staff, wines, aging, food pairing, etc. No wonder their tasting is pricey!
SUMMARY: Shafer is a classic high-quality winery that produces some of the best wines we tasted and offers a memorable and informative experience. I estimate Shafer to be in the top 25 selections of our Top 100!
- Masculine, classic, classy appearance from the outside
- Relaxed, casual atmosphere inside
- Ansel Adams exhibit with original signed prints, cool to check out, one of Dave’s favorites was included
- Not a standout – didn’t have the opportunity to engage the wine attendant who didn’t seem too interested in engaging us either. Maybe it was the end of a long day. Therefore we paid for our tasting (which we aren’t really used to doing – ha ha) and were on our way
- Tasting included: 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, 2.5*), 2011 Syrah 2-2.5*, 2012 Merlot 2.5*, and 2012 Cab Reserve 2.5*
SUMMARY: Turnbull wines were not bad, but they didn’t standout – it’s one of the few places we didn’t buy from or talk to the staff. Definitely not in our Top 100!
Alpha Omega (Rutherford)
The patio and fountains look very majestic, a stand-out on Rt 29. I’ve been wanting to go there and soak up the sun.
AO offers 25 different wines from 29 vineyards, 15k cases They sell out of most of their wines and most sales are to the wine club. You can also buy at some Chicago restaurants such as Gibsons and Gene & Georgetti.
The owner was a grape grower south of San Francisco, he also was a star basketball player in college and worked for the NBA for quite a few years. He started AO started about 10 years ago and hired Newtown’s winemaker (originally from Switzerland) who is very detail-oriented.
Unique, but odd sales approach where you can only buy their single vineyard cabs in packs of 3, and they are pricey. Seems like they are trying to cultivate a ‘cult’ status for their wines. There was a bit of a sales pitch, but it wasn’t bad. They must work on commission.
Learned that depending on when you got your business license determines whether you are appointment only or not – with the dot com boom in the 2000s the county required these new wineries to be appointment only and limits the number of guests that can visit each day.
We enjoyed great service outside by the fountains with our knowledgeable host who then invited us into the barrel room for a special tasting of their flagship Era cabernet blend.
2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – 50% French oak/50% SS, they also use some acacia wood which gives it a soft creamy taste
2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay 2.5* – The winemaker made a name for himself making Chardonnay over at Newton (we’ve had the Chardonnay at Newton and it is INCREDIBLE!) While we weren’t as crazy about this one (a little too oaky), we really enjoyed the unoaked and bought it at AO.
2011 Proprietary Red Blend 2.5-3* – Cabernet, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot blend, blend from 5 wineries including Beckstoffer, 2011 cool temps resulting in good acid. Aromas of black pepper and blackberries
2012 Cabernet 2.5-3* – blend from 5 vineyards, Cabernet, Merlot Petit Verdot, Cab Franc. Can age for 20 years.
2013 No Oak Chardonnay 3* – 400 cases produced. Jamieson Canyon
2013 Era 3* – barrel tasting, their flagship blend of all their single vineyard cabernets (To Kalon, Las Piedras, Stagecoach, Georges III, Sunshine Valley, Missouri Hopper)
SUMMARY: Alpha Omega is a memorable winery – beautiful setting and a selection of quality wines, though their expensive multi-bottle pricing is a negative and makes their wines less accessible. They will likely place in the 50-75 slot.