April’s Amazing Adventures – Part 2

Welcome to the final regular post for our St Helena/Napa stay!  This includes visits to wineries 106-121.  Enjoy!

Sat 4/11

Hagafen Cellars (Oak Knoll)

I think the manager who rolled out the red carpet for us over at V Sattui recommended Hagafen so after the crew took off for the airport I made my way over to the south end of the Silverado Trail to check it out!

  • Hagafen is pronounced Ha-GAH-fen – not HAG-a-fen.  All of their wines are Kosher.
  • Ernesto/Ernie is the winemaker and owner, 1st job was at Chandon, his somm friend over at Etoile (which recently closed) became the wine manager for the White House, which enabled Hagafen to be featured on a few Presidential menus!
  • Hagafen employs green technology as photovoltaic cells power the winery.
  • I liked the open-air style of their tasting room – a small building with open doors on each side and a series of tables on their outdoor patio leading to their barrel room.
  • They recommended Baldacci for nice syrahs.


  • 2014 Rose 2* – Syrah, Don Ernesto second label, named after the wine maker who used to work at Domaine Chandon, strawberry, crisp, med acid, lt body
  • 2013 Pinot Noir 3* – Coombsville, a bit warmer than Carneros, strawberry hints with spice, lt body, soft tannings, full flavor profile
  • 2013 Clarinet 2-2.4* – Ernesto label, spicy, meaty, light body
  • 2012 Syrah 2.5-3* – Coombsville, served at the White House a few times
  • 2012 Crescendo 2-2.4* – secret cabernet blend, lt body, med tannins
  • 2011 Cabernet Franc 2.3-3* – med body, med/firm tannins
  • 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – med/firm tannings, med-full flavor profile, long length
  • 2009 Syrah 2.5*

SUMMARY: Hagafen was a fine winery stop on a Sat morning. I liked the casual atmosphere, friendly hosts, and that the wines were all reasonably priced. However the majority of the wines didn’t rock my world. If it makes the list, it will rank in the 75-100 of our Top 100.

Chimney Rock (Stag’s Leap)

I decided to visit Chimney Rock as my friend Eileen recommended it and the gorgeous white stucco buildings really stand out against the dramatic mountain backdrop. I quickly learned that the original owner was from South Africa and he modeled the architecture after the Cape Dutch style found at many Stellenbosch wineries. No wonder why I was drawn to it! He also had to take out the 9-hole golf course that used to be on the property.

I was a little hesitant to visit as Chimney Rock is a Terlato (distributors of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio) property and Dave and I have really preferred the smaller production, Mom ‘n Pop-style places. However, as noted in earlier posts, many wineries affiliated with behemoths are able to offer the best of both worlds – they are able to leverage the behemoth’s marketing and distribution channels, production know-how, and purchasing power, while producing small lots of boutique high quality wines that you cannot purchase easily outside of the winery. I was particularly impressed that Chimney Rock offered a white varietal I had never heard of before, Sauvignon Gris (though I understand Chalk Hill and another winery make this varietal as well)! In a wine country where you see the same varietals over and over again, this was cool new territory (or terroir!) to explore. Read on for a review!

The tasting room, a huge rectangular ‘standing’ bar, was hopping and it took some time for me to get some service, but I was in no rush, and was very happy to have Debbie serving me. She spent extra time with me, sharing some of the backstory of the winery, and some of her own wine-making adventures! Cool! There were tables outside reserved for wine club members that looked more relaxing and laid back – otherwise the atmosphere inside was very busy, almost factory-like.

Production: 20-30K, depending on year

Acreage: 105, 80% planted to Cabernet, they do not buy or sell their grapes, they do some pressing of grapes but most are free-run (common theme in Napa is to be very gentle with the grapes, free-range grapes, free-range chickens – 🙂

All red wines are from the Stags Leap estate while some of the whites are sourced elsewhere.  They drain their valley vineyards and stress the vines to mimic hillside conditions.  They use computer-monitored sensors and aerial photography to monitor vineyard conditions.


  • 2011 Elevage Blanc 2.5* – white blend, Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc (estate wine from other properties) and Sauvignon Gris, super smooth, subtle, nearly no aroma, light body, low acid, low/med flavor profile, med complexity, medium length, aged in a variety of new & neutral (older) oak and stainless steel, extremely unique (can age 10 years)
  • 2013 Sauvignon Gris 2.5-3* – 2 acres are planted to this grape which is a relative to Sauvignon Blanc, this wine was a bit drier than the blend, this varietal is used instead of Semillon (which is typically blended in Bordeaux Sauvignon Blancs) (drink early)
  • 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5-3* – med body, sharp tannins, full flavor profile
  • 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – this wine is distributed so look for it! More fruit-forward than the 2009, less tannins surprisingly given that it is younger
  • 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon 3-3.5* – med body, firm tannins
  • 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5-3* – firm tannins, very fruit-forward too
  • 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – med garnet red color, not as dark as other caps, this was a challenging weather year, strong tannins, full body, bright
  • 2011 Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 3-3.5* – single vineyard, hillside, full body, soft/med tannins, long length, full fruit-forward flavor profile, high complexity.

Very cool to do the vertical (different vintages/years) to taste the differences. Given I was spitting I actually could TASTE the differences!  All of these wines were high quality, some with smoother softer tannins than others.

Debbie suggested I check out the PBS series Vintage. She also knows how to use a champagne saber to open up a bottle – it slices the bottle and pops off the cork, bottle needs to be very cold for it to work. I think I need to see a video of this and I don’t plan to attempt at home!  She recommended Hunnicutt for the experience, Titus for petite sirah.

SUMMARY: Chimney Rock offered a surprising array of wines that I found extremely appealing, including a surprise varietal called Sauvignon Gris. I also really enjoyed the chat I had with my host Debbie, though the experience for most would likely be more of a belly up to the huge square bar, drink, and go. It’s a place I’d like to go back to and do a tour during the week when it’s less busy to learn more. Chimney Rock will rank somewhere close to 40 of Top 100 List.

Regusci Winery (Stag’s Leap)

Regusci has been on my list for some time – liked the Italian name, and have heard good things about it from other locals (including my host over at James Cole.) In fact, Jim Regusci was working the tractor over at James Cole during my visit – Jim has his own vineyard management company – he manages 3500 acres for 60 wineries throughout the valley. Jim is also a partner/co-owner at TVine (as well as Tank Garage winery I believe.) What a busy guy!

Production: 6-8K cases, depends on the year
Interestingly enough they sell about 80% of their grapes to other wineries – I believe to very well-respected wineries too


  • 1878 winery was built
  • Regusci family (Swiss Italian, like the Nichelinis) purchased in 1932 (still under Prohibition) for about $22K
  • Family ran a dairy (their red barn is still across the street across from Clos du Val), they pulled out the vineyard but kept the zin vines because Regusci liked zin (smart guy – we love zin!)
  • Son Angelo took over in the 40s, replanted the vines in the mid 60s, and the mid 70s converted the farm from dairy to grapes – this was a great time to do so given the Paris 1976 Judgement which put Napa on the map (and in particular Chateau Montelena in Calistoga and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars of Stag’s Leap) – again smart guy!
  • Obtained wine license in the early 90s and released their first vintage, cabernet, in 1996


  • 2012 Chardonnay 2.5* – no malolactic fermentation, neutral oak, Carneros grapes
  • 2011 Zinfandel 3* – only Stags Leap winery that grows its own zin, they call it the ‘un-zin’, peppery, amazing aroma, smooth, unique
  • 2012 Zinfandel 2.5* – more fruit, more traditional
  • 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon 3-3.5* – distributed, their flagship wine, full body, med tannins, about 7% merlot added makes for a smoother finish
  • 2011 Patriarch 3* – Bordeaux blend, smooth and bold, 64% Cabernet, 27% Merlot, 9% Cab Franc, soft tannins, bold fruity flavor profile, long length, good balance, high complexity
  • 2010 Regusci Block 3 Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – Clone 6 (famous, < 10 plantings left in Napa?), ~200 cases produced, normally a wine club only wine, med/firm tannins,
  • 2004 Angelo’s Cabernet Sauvignon 3.5* – hillside with stressed vines (<2 ft of soil), small grapes with a lot of ‘energy’ being directed to them, most coveted wine in their portfolio, usually sells out in a few weeks, drink in the next 4-5 years or up to 20 years, produce 225 cases/yr, some grapes from Patriarach are blended into it
  • 2008 Syrah 3* – 100 cases produced

SUMMARY: Regusci was really something special, a surprising standout to discover on the tail-end of our stay! Makes me wish we had visited earlier! While the atmosphere was lively and very busy, it also had a laid-back comfortable feel with customers enjoying their large outdoor patio overlooking Stags Leap or picnicking on the grounds. The wines were all impressive and so was the customer service, despite the crowds. It reminded me of Pine Ridge and Sequoia Grove – lesser-known wineries (that is, outside of Napa) where every wine would be a wonderful additional to your wine collection! I picked up a special occasion bottle of their 2004 Angelo’s Vineyard Cabernet which was amazing and I can’t wait to pop open! I know appreciate what an aged Cabernet tastes like – smooth, sophisticated, a bit more earthy than fruity – wow! I know Dave will love their wines too! Regusci will rank in the 20-25 range of our Top 100.

Sun 4/12

MacPhail Family Wines (Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley)

Originally recommended by our beloved ‘Asian Somm Guy’ (ASG) over at Odette, and mentioned again by my host over at Hess Collection, I decided to make the big drive back out to Sebastapol on my own to finally taste the ‘pinot master’ MacPhail’s wine for myself!

I’m glad I did. I arrived early before the tasting room opened and enjoyed a delicious breakfast across the street in one of the cool warehouse-like buildings that dominate this funky and unique shopping, dining, and arts district.

I made my way over to the tasting room which was modern, industrial, filled with eclectic artwork, including a tower of Radio Flyer wagons (which are near and dear to the owner James MacPhail – these wagons are also integrated into their logos and he has a Russian River pinot called “The Flyer”.) I got comfie at a high top table and enjoyed very personalized service from my host, . I quickly learned that MacPhail’s parent company is Hess Collection, which at first I found to be a bit disappointing, but partnerships seem to be a smart option for many of these wineries and I loved Hess Collection (more boutique and very high in quality compared to Hess Select, their mass market company.) Makes sense too that Hess Collection is distributing one of MacPhail’s pinot.

More about the history:

  • 1995-96: MacPhail was a harvest intern w/La Follette, worked with Gary Farrel and Merry Edwards
  • 2002 – 1st vintage from Anderson Valley vineyard
  • 2008 – Sepastapol estate was planted
  • MacPhail works with a variety of vineyards to source grapes – Anderson Valley is selected for its mountain ‘benchlands’ and fog, with firm acidity and earthy tones providing a ‘softer’ side to pinot. The Sonoma coast provides rich, ripe fruity flavors. MacPhail chooses small blocks in the vineyards, plants with a clones that allow for layers of complexity.
  • Like other wineries they focus on a non-interventional approach with minimal intervention
  • Recommend aging their pinots for 5-8 years


  • 2012 Chardonnay 3* – 90 pts Robert Parker, 92% stainless, 8% neutral French oak
  • 2012 Gap’s Crown Chardonnay 2.5-3* – house style, more typical California Chardonnay, barrel-fermented, aging ‘on the lees’ in 100% French oak and batonage (French word for stirring the ‘lees’ (dead or residual yeast & other particles – sediment) to incorporate the flavor (this is an alternative to ‘racking’ in which wine is transferred to another barrel to remove the sediment)
  • 2012 Wildcat Pinot Noir 2-2.5* – light body, red fruit flavor profile, soft tannins, no vintage in 2011 due to weather
  • 2011 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir (Green Valley) 3* – 94 pts Wine Enthusiast, grapes tend to be harvested riper than other vineyards, offered under Hess Collection Sequana (Santa Lucia highlands) label, spicy aroma, med flavor profile, decided not to release the 2013s until the end of the year
  • 2012 Rita’s Crown Pinot (Santa Rita Hills, near Santa Barbara) 2.5* – hilltop, earthy
  • 2012 Wightman House Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley 3* – 2 acre vineyard, 4 barrels produced originally in 2006, max production has been 8 barrels, use the martini clone (excels in warmer weather)

SUMMARY: While I would have preferred to have visited their winery (no longer an option), I am very glad I made the special trip out to Sepastapol to sample the ‘pinot master’s’ wines! It’s also very convenient to visit if you are shopping in the area and you can also visit other nearby tasting rooms. I enjoyed some pinots more than others – however compared to other pinots we’ve had in CA these are among, if not, the very best! I found the prices to be quite reasonable and the service to be very attentive! MacPhail will rank somewhere in the top 35-40 wineries in our Top 100!

Dutton Estate Winery (Green Valley) – #110!!

Decided to visit Dutton after hearing a few recommendations, including the host over at MacPhail.

  • Production: 4K cases (Dutton Goldfield, in the same brand family produces 11K cases)
  • History: in the 1870s the land was used prune and apple farming, they grew fruit for the Army. The market declined quite a bit in the 70s and they grafted almonds onto the prune trees. They chopped down many of the apple trees and there were so many apples all over, such a shame that so many went to waste.
  • The marine inversion climate in the Green Valley AVA is ideal for growing Pinot and Chardonnay.
  • Dutton Estate sells their fruit to 40-50 other wineries and companies.
  • All fruit is Green Valley AVA in Sonoma except for the Syrah grapes.


  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5-3* – blend from different vineyards, aged in neutral oak (60%) and stainless steel (40%) – Merry Edwards ages the same way (Merry Edwards is one of our TOP sauvignon blanc selections and liked this one too!)  According to their chef, goat cheese and sauvignon blanc always pair well.
  • 2013 Kyndall’s Reserve Chardonnay 3* – fruit grown on estate, Dutton Palms, aged in 1/3 French oak with 100% malolactic fermentation
  • 2012 Karmen Isabella Pinot Noir 2.5* – WS 94 pts, blend of 3 vineyards, close to estate, all Green Valley
  • 2013 Pinot Noira 2-2.5* – Thomas Rd, ore earthy, less fruit-forward, light, almost translucent in color, tasted young
  • 2011 Syrah 3* – My Father’s Vineyard, from west of Santa Rosa, 1 acre surrounding one of the owner’s house, fruit-forward, soft-medium tannins, planted in a 4×6 format (4 plants 4 feet apart x 6 rows 6 feet apart) Cool climate makes for a less tannic wine.
  • 2013 Late Harvest Syrah 3* – very smooth

Cynthia was replaced with a young tasting room attendant studying to be an accountant. He didn’t have nearly the knowledge or finesse that Cynthia had but he was very friendly as was a second host who joined him. I had such a laugh when I mentioned that I was thinking of going to Martinelli for a tasting on my way home and he said it was fine if you didn’t mind the ‘Disneyland’-style atmosphere, that it was such a big company that made the sparkling grape juice! I really didn’t think ASG would have suggested it if it was indeed the sparkling grape juice maker, and that didn’t jive with the research I did either. He was just simply mistaken and it was pretty damn funny. I looked up Martinelli, the sparkling company, and they are located in Santa Cruz County, a few hours away.

Cynthia recommended Paul Mathew on Graton Rd (he used to be the winemaker at Dutton) – pinots are recommended.

SUMMARY: Dutton Estate was very down-home, casual, and friendly – looked like a home that had been converted to a tasting room. I really enjoyed chatting with Cynthia, their chef, and loved how they paired all your tastings with a gourmet treat or cheese. The wines were a bit of a mixed bag – enjoyed a few quite a bit, but not all.  Because of the stiff competition Dutton Estate will rank in the 60-75 range of our Top 100.

Martinelli Winery (Russian River Valley)

I decided even though I was a bit fatigued on the wine tasting front to stop at Martinelli since it got high marks from Asian Somm Guy and I noticed on their website one of their wines was from Jackass Vineyards.

The tasting room is an old hop barn – you could see where the hops were dropped from the 2nd floor to the 1st. A train used to run through River Rd and the hops could easily be loaded onto the train for transport.  The Bondi family who were apples farmers used to own the property and one of the brothers bought the property and converted it into a trailer park.  Today about 90% of the grapes they farm are sold to other Sonoma County wineries (similar to Regusci.)


  • 2011 3 Sisters Pinot Noir 2.5* – coastal grapes, some spice, always age 1 year longer in the bottle
  • 2012 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir – the ranch is named after a century old barn which originally was a prune brandy distillery (complete with tunnels for escape routes during Prohibition!), more fruit, located a mile from the Russian River
  • 2013 Bondi Home Ranch 3* – from the Green Valley AVA with the most go, full flavor profile, 94 pts Galloni, Parker tasted the 2012
  • 2009 Syrah Vellutini Ranch 2.5-3* – med/firm tannins, full body, full flavor profile
  • 2008 Lolita Ranch Syrah 3-3.5* – soft tannins, full flavor, aromas of licorice
  • 2013 Zinfandel Giuseppe and Luisa 2-2.5* – some spice, light body, light flavor profile, more pinot-like
  • 2012 Lolita Ranch Zin 2.5* – light body, medium flavor profile, med/firm tannins, they pick grapes at 26 brix (instead of the norm at 24), hi alcohol content
  • 2012 Muscat – started as a table wine

They weren’t pouring any of the Jackass Hill or Jackass Vineyard wines as they were sold out and, due to their limited production (only 50 cases), are primarily allocated to the mailing list and a small selection of restaurants (e.g., French Laundry.) Jackass Hill is the steepest hill (65%) in Sonoma, 3 acres – name come from a saying that “you’d have to be a jackass to farm there”.

Robert Parker is no longer reviewing submissions – he only reaches out to the wineries he’d like to rank

SUMMARY: The barn tasting room looked cool, the service was fine, felt like I had to coax some stories and comments from the host – but I recognize not every experience is going to be over the top and exceptional. The wines were mixed, a few were standouts but most were average to me.  I am kind of sold on the idea of trying to secure a bottle of Jackass Vineyard zin in the future though! Martinelli will rank somewhere close to 75 in our Top 100.

Hanna Winery (Alexander Valley)

I decided to try Hanna after meeting one of their members over at Cakebread. Their website looked very enticing as well and it appeared as though many of their wines were award-winning.

Some history I picked up from their brochure: Founded in 1985 by a renowned cardiac surgeon, eager to continue his Syrian farming heritage. The have estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley with a total of 600 acres.

The tasting experience was really one of the worst I’ve had during my time in Napa in that the host was completely deadpan, had very little interest in answering any of my questions, and showed zero enthusiasm for the wines, winery, or his job. Apparently he has been working there for 8 or 9 years which I find very surprising – he must not work on commission!  Wine Enthusiast ranked it as one of the top tasting rooms in the US. They must have had another host!

I did enjoy speaking with the other customers who were very interested in my blog and my experiences in Napa – many noted the website and promised to visit. A very fun crew from Chicago came in (they were in town for a wedding) as well and the host sort of warmed up to them (one was a member and another was the bride whom he knew).

The host did pour me a few wines ‘off the list’ that I was hoping would rock my world (and incentivize me to at least walk away with an amazing wine and hopefully waive my tasting fee), but they did not. Though I didn’t try Titan, their Bordeaux blend which sounded quite nice, I wasn’t about to ask.  I was impressed with and took home their sauvignon blanc however and I’d highly recommend it as it’s pretty widely distributed and available in Chicago (Potash Market,where you can also buy Girl Scout cookies, on the wine list at Siena Tavern.)

Production: 44K cases, distribution through Terlato


  • 2012 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2.5-3* – pale, almost clear color, crisp, hi acid, bright fruit, tropical, aged in stainless steel, 25K cases – Wine & Spirits ranked the 2010 as the year’s best sauvignon blanc
  • 2013 Chardonnay 2.5* – barrel-fermented, oaky, buttery, smooth
  • Rose 2-2.5* – Merlot, Malbec, Pinot, wine has skin contact for only 4 hours, light flavor profile, low/med acid, light body
  • 2013 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2.5-3* – spice, light/med body, soft tannins, fruit flavor profile, won Silver award at the San Francisco Chronicle competition
  • Two Ranch Red 2-2.5* – 8 varietals, med tannins, blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Zin, Malbec, Pinot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc (used as a malolactic starter)
  • 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5* – soft tannins, full body, blackberry and currant
  • 2012 Reserve Alcheimie 2.5-3* – Robert Parker 93 points, blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot, produce under 450 cases

SUMMARY: Hanna’s grounds are spectacular – what a pretty drive. The tasting room is also large and nicely appointed and there are tables to sit outside and taken in the view. The service was lukewarm and a bit unfriendly, at least the service from the gentleman was – the woman seemed a bit more interested in being social and friendly. I’m glad that a crew came in from Chicago and I enjoyed my chat with them. I’d buy the sauvignon blanc again because it was fantastic and a great value. I wouldn’t visit the Alexander Valley location again but would consider their Santa Rosa tasting room. Hanna will rank somewhere in the 90-100 range of the Top 100.

Mon 4/13

Markham Vineyards (St Helena)

My exposure to Markham has been primarily their sauvignon blanc, which I used to buy frequently from Cost Plus/World Market. Given their close proximity to the house I decided to venture out for a visit after work.

  • Winery built in 1879, originally made sacramental wine for the church and stayed in business through Prohibition
  • 4th oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley – others include: Charles Krug, Schramsberg, Sutter Home, Beringer (Beringer was closed for part of Prohibition)
  • Production: 150K cases (50K cases of merlot)
  • Acreage: Markham operates 316 acres across 3 properties. In 1977 Markham bought the land where all their grapes were sourced from. They use water to insulate the crops (wonder if that contributes to the lack of flavor ‘punch’ in their wines?)

It was a little awkward when my attendant kept mentioning the price of the tasting before my first sip was poured. This hasn’t happened anywhere else – normally you pay after the tasting – and typically the fee is waived with any bottle purchase (dependent on the winery and if a fancy tasting or tour is involved.) I sort of ignored him and went on to mention the blog and that changed the tone of the interaction. The tasting room was quite busy and I was passed from host to host, which was fine. It seemed like their hosts were really pushing the wine club with other customers – a bit of a hard-sell which is a turnoff. Once it cleared out I was able to chat more with one of the very knowledgeable and friendly attendants.


  • 2013 Pinot Noir 1.5-2* – from vineyard southeast of Yountville, light body, a bit flat, fruity, low complexity, aged in French oak
  • 2012 Zinfandel 2* – Napa, blended with petite sirah, low tannins, light/med body, flat, low complexity, medium flavor intensity
  • 2012 Cellar 1879 Blend 2-2.5* – medium body, soft-med tannins, med and mellow flavor profile, a bit flat, low complexity, primarily merlot with a blend of Cabernet and other mixing varietals ($25 price point for a 90 pt Wine Spectator rating is not bad)
  • 2011 Petite Sirah 2* – med tannins, med body, med flavor profile, low complexity, one dimensional, vines are near Spottswoode, really wanted to like it – there are few petite sirahs I don’t love
  • 2011 Petit Verdot 2* – aromatic, soft tannins, light body, light flavor profile
  • 2012 Reserve Merlot 2.5* – lovely aroma, more tannins than I would expect from a merlot which is normally a fruit bomb I love
  • 2012 Merlot 2.5* – Napa Valley, aged in 30% new American oak, fruity aromas, soft tannins, more traditional merlot
  • 2012 Estate blend – merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, aged 18 months in 70% new American oak, Yountville vineyard

Their winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls was pouring in the tasting room for awhile. She is on the PBS series Vintage (along with other female winemakers) which I’d definitely like to check out.

Markham had an interesting iPhone art exhibit with a focus on rock and roll artists. The owners are friends with the Rolling Stones photographer and a variety of related photos are on display.

Attendant recommended – Smith Madrone, Stony Hill (have heard they are great for whites, have a unique climate), Burgess, Viader, TV (Terra Valentine), Twenty Rows (with Vinoce as a second label.)

SUMMARY: Markham is conveniently located on Rt 29 in St Helena and no appointment is needed to visit (this became very attractive to me after making too many appointments to mention!) It has a large decent tasting room with an interesting iPhone photography exhibit. I found the wines lighter in body and complexity than what I usually prefer.  There are simply too many great wine options in the valley that I’d prefer to visit and drink. It will either rank in the 90-100 range or not at all in our Top 100.

Cairdean Estate (St Helena)

Cairdean, which is Scottish Gaelic for ‘friends’, has become a friend of ours!  I had to visit after driving past the massive construction site for a few months and I’m real glad I did!

  • My host was Kim, the tasting room manager, and she was a delight. We happened to have very similar wine tastes and she was able to pick options for me that I really enjoyed!
  • Production: 6K cases (not distributed)
  • Run by a couple – husband was an aerospace engineer and the wife (Stacia, the winemaker) a software engineer. Husband is from Scottish descent. In 2000 the owners started to make wine at home (zinfandel) and it took off from there. 2008 was their first vintage – zinfandel.
  • Highly focused on supporting charitable causes including local art events and Cystic Fibrosis.
  • They focus on light elegant wines to pair well with food. This model is brought to life through the Cairdean complex which includes the winery, 18K square feet of newly-excavated caves with ‘living roofs’ on the caves, tasting room, the Farmer and the Fox restaurant (with a Michelin starred chef – we enjoyed dinner there, especially the fried pickles and having the very special Cairdean cab franc available by the glass!), a more casual bakery Butterscots (we went for breakfast later in the week and the service was definitely off – food was decent), gift shop, and an art gallery. They employ green practices throughout the complex including solar power. Very unique and makes Cairdean a destination (though I would be happy just visiting the tasting room!)
  • They have 10 acres in Coombsville (we don’t see too many wines from there) – 2011 was their first vintage and their wines from there have been award-winning. Cairdean also owns property in Russian River Valley.
  • I really liked their labeling and branding – simple, elegant, their logo is a series of 4 connected hearts representing friendship.
  • I also loved their tasting room – while it was a bit rowdy and loud at first with a huge group, it is warm and inviting – nicely furnished, good lighting. There’s plenty of comfortable seating around the large square bar (this was unique – you typically stand at the bar unless you’ve made special reservations) and the music was fabulous. I found it interesting that these little ‘extras’ make a difference – they make you want to stay for awhile (and I’m sure the business hopes that you buy too!) I think other wineries should really take a page from their playbook as these little things do make an impression – even when you are visiting your 114th winery in 4 months!


  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5-3* – crisp, tropical fruit, light body, hi acid
  • 2013 Haley Margaret 3* – 65 roses, almost smoky aroma, gravely minerality, super unique, almost no fruit on the nose, but it has peach and apricot flavors, really enjoyed
  • 2011 Napa Unoaked Chardonnay 3* – lovely aroma – almost candy-like, crisp, acidic, unique, light, very drinkable, light yellow color, neutral oak is the secret here – not as mineral-like as with pure stainless
  • 2010 Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2-2.5* – deeper yellow, vegetal aroma, some butter and vanilla, med acidity, med body – I preferred the unoaked Chardonnay by far
  • 2011 Pinot Noir 2* – from Carneros, earthy aromas, wood, tobacco, light body, fruity, med tannins
  • 201 Napa Merlot 3* – spicy, earthy aromas, complex, multi-dimensional, med body
  • 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon 2-2.5* – grapes sourced from Calistoga to Napa, very subtle, soft tannins, fruit forward, light body, not as complex and multi-dimensional as I’d expect
  • 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2.5* – more power and spice, med body, soft/med tannins, more structure
  • 2010 Petite Sirah 2-2.5* – fruity aromas
  • Malbec – huge wine, fruity, full and bigger, similar to the merlot
  • Riesling 3* – effervescent, unique, tasty

Kim recommended Sullivan Vineyards for their merlot (especially older vintages), David Fulton (petite sirah)

SUMMARY: Cairdean was a true treat. I loved their attention to quality and detail – from the well-appointed and comfortable tasting room, to the excellent service, to offering a large variety of wines – both in varietals and vintages – unexpected for a new winery! Really enjoyed the unique Haley Margaret blend, the Napa Valley Merlot, and the Cab Franc was a standout! Cairdean will rank in the top 15 of our Top 100.

Tues 4/14

Envy Wines – #115!

We’ve had Envy on our list for sometime after getting a recommendation from ASG. I finally decided to go after work on a Tues to try it out!

Production: ~1500 cases

The attendant Mark was super friendly and provided additional wine tasting recommendations. He also kept the tasting room open a bit late for me, a couple enjoying a bottle of wine outside, and for a customer to come back for a cell phone he left behind earlier in the day. You don’t see that level of customer service all over Napa, that’s for sure (eh em….Louis Martini)


  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc 2.5* – crisp, melon, tropical fruits, light body, hi acid (won 90 pts in SF Chronicle Competition?)
  • 2013 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2* – aged 9 mos in French oak (half neutral, half new), honeysuckle, more herbal than the regular SB
  • 2013 Pinot Rose 2* – light body, dry, med acid
  • Day Rose 2* – some effervescence, off dry/some residual sugar (1.5)
  • Night Rose 2.5* – totally dry, light, good acid for food pairing, recently bottled
  • Desert wine 2-2.5* – Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Lake County, Brix level 35-40, 13-14% residual sugar, great with fruit and aged cheese (blue), foie gras. Envy mimics noble rot with the desert wine – dries out the grapes, crystallizes the sugar (happens naturally with some French grapes.)
  • 2012 Bee Bee’s Blend 2.5* – very balanced with a good amount of fruit, soft/med tannins, med body
  • 2012 Estate Cabernet 2-2.5* – 100% cab, 65% new French oak, soft tannins, fruit forward, med body
  • 2012 Fortuna Cabernet – mild, owned by Turnbull in Oakville, soft tannins, med body, nice fruit
  • 2013 Petite Sirah 3* – vineyard on site, cost efficiencies result in reasonable prices

Suggested Chateau de Cam (French desert wine) – In 2012 there was no noble rot, didn’t make the wine, Sauternes style, sold it in bulk for cooking wine. They don’t use sauvignon blanc – Semillon makes it softer.  Mark also recommended Arroyo and David Fulton for petite sirah (wine is a bit sweeter due to dry farming), Von Strasser (said half of his wine cellar is from there)!  A customer recommended ice wines from Pelee Island.

SUMMARY: Envy was a bit of a mixed experience. I liked the laid-back atmosphere, friendly service, and pretty setting. Their wines were good, but only one stood out – the petite sirah. Envy will rank in the 75-100 range of our Top 100.

Wed 4/15

David Fulton Winery (St Helena)

We’ve driven past the winery on our way to the gym and have wanted to check it out. It was also recommended to us by Kim over at Cairdean and Mark at Envy. Given it is right around the corner from us, shame on us for not venturing over there sooner!

I was a bit hesitant to visit after reading some of the reviews on the ‘hard sell’ approach of their ME 2nd label. We showed up late in the day Wed afternoon and were warmly welcomed by the staff – at first it was hard to tell if they all worked there or if some were friends/customers/etc, but we found ourselves on their gorgeous deck smack dab in their vineyard (gorgeous!) looking at the variety of vine sculptures on display for the Arts Fest, and sampling their fine wine!

The tasting room manager (and marketing guy behind the new labels) was there early on in our visit and it was interesting to learn more about the labels which integrate social media and charity into their branding and marketing. I could see how that could really interest the Millennials, but Dave and I are much more into the taste and quality.

The wine maker Richard (5th generation Fulton) and his girlfriend hosted us for the rest of our visit. He was almost apologetic about taking over, but I think we enjoyed ourselves more as a result! They shared a lot of history with us and took us to the barrel room which was the smallest we’ve seen in Napa – they also store wine for another wine maker.) We chatted about everything and were there for a few hours! Since we weren’t driving, Dave and I were not spitting – needless to say my notes are a bit messy as a result!

Some tidbits:

  • Acreage: 14.5 acres
  • Production: very small – <1000 cases
  • 1858 – first experimental grapes planted in St Helena
  • 1861 – David Fulton built a stone wine cellar and started the vineyard
  • 1995 – Fulton Mather (wine maker’s Dad, whom we met during our visit) took over the operations
  • Napa nearly became the capitol of CA.
  • DF is the oldest family-operated operating winery in CA – they have a photobook and a variety of framed old pictures throughout the rustic tasting room.
  • David Fulton invested the 1 horse plow, which allowed him to be able to plant the vines closer together
  • Average lifespan of most vines – 40-50 years. Petite Sirah vines tend to eventually hollow out.


  • 2012 #selfie 2.5*
  • 2011 Semillon 2.5-3* Liora
  • 2010 DF Legacy 1860 3* – lovely aromas, earthy, smooth, Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet, Malbec, PV, PS)
  • 2012 Petite Sirah 3*
  • Sweet Petite Port 3* (very nice and smooth)

SUMMARY: David Fulton was a unique experience for us – arriving late in the day on a Wed to this rustic, homey winery, being welcomed with open arms and treated like a guest instead of a customer, having their very special rare and tasty bottle of petite sirah opened for us may not be the everyday practice there, but we are glad we went and picked up a few bottles of that special grape! What a way to end a Wed! David Fulton will rank in the 45-50 range of our Top 100.

Thurs 3/16

O’Shaughnnessy Winery (Howell Mountain)

Similar to A Rafanelli, O’Shaughnnessy was a bit of a challenge to get into (took weeks), primarily due to the tasting room accommodating just a few parties at one time, and they have limited staffing (you’ll find this is very common with the smaller family-run wineries that really are worth the advance planning.)  It’s a small quality operation. Initially recommended by ASG over at Odette, and given our love for hillside wineries, we decided to give it a shot, despite our waning enthusiasm for winery visits!

The drive to the winery is very pretty and its location is quite remote. You need to be careful to not drive up any other roads as most are likely driveways and the “Do Not Trespass” signs are everywhere. Unlike other areas in CA, these hills are likely to have gun-toting folks so be on the lookout!

Upon arrival we took a look into the barrel room and were greeted by two dogs who like to compete with each other for your attention. Then Bianca our host welcomed us and took us into a gorgeous modern tasting room all set up for our appointment.

Winery notes:

  • Production: 4K cases
  • Acreage: 120 acres, 42 planted to vine (sourcing from 36?), 4 properties
  • Distribution: primarily through their wine club
  • A bit about their winemaker Fresno: worked in Australia, Long Island, and got started in CA working the pinot harvest, then over at Pine Ridge (love them!), joined OS in 1999.
  • Specialize in Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain cabs.
  • Produced first vintage in 2000
  • Betty, one of the owners attended winemaking classes at UC Davis
  • Winemaking notes: Auto pump-overs (all internal), wines are temporarily fermented in tall thin tanks before fermenting in the barrel, passed through 5 times

Chatted a bit about the Ag Preserve (may have been started by Mondavi, provides strict rules on development to preserve the agricultural way of life in Napa) – each vineyard can only develop 40% of their land

During our tasting we took a tour of the barrel room and saw their integrated pump over equipment. Then we ventured into their modern, immaculate well-lit, and modern wine cave. The cave was taller than others and had a cool central sound system, the most comfortable wine cave we’ve toured! The highlight of the tour had to be our visit to the owner’s private wine cellar in the cave which blew us away. Situated behind a huge dining table and double-glass doors, this beautiful room stocks ~30,0000 bottles of fine grape. We enjoyed checking out older vintages of prestigious CA wines such as Chateau Montelena, Ridge, Merry Edwards, Dunn, Araujo, etc.! Two full-time guys work to maintain it, they rotate the wine regularly. According to Bianca this was his second wine celllar and the really good stuff he keeps at home. Wow! We’d like to be invited to dinner for sure!


  • 2013 Oakville Chardonnay 3* – from Betty’s back yard, medium acid, light/no oak, no MLF
  • 2012 Howell Mountain Merlot 2.5-3* – first vintage since 2009, nice aroma, herbal, and juicy
  • 2011 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – acid is nicely balanced with tannins (acid makes your mouth water while tannins make it dry), they do gentle punch-downs
  • 2011 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – medium tannins, increased minerality, black tea

SUMMARY: O’Shaughnnessy is a great destination to add to your Napa itinerary – it has gorgeous grounds and views and the tour experience is highly personalized and special. The wines are also fantastic. The only downside is that they don’t produce much in the way of variety, and what they produce sells fast! I recommend getting a hold of the Mount Veeder cab if you can (a bit more rare than wines from Howell Mountain.)  O’Shaughnnessy will rank in the 40-50 range of our Top 100.

Fri 4/17

Williams Selyem (Dry Creek Valley)

Unlike A Rafanelli and O’Shaughnessy, I had an unexpectedly pleasant and easy experience scheduling a visit to this exclusive members-only by-appointment winery!  I ordered a few bottles from their website and then called to schedule a tasting for the weekend of 4/17 (not expecting to get in really), and was invited by Scott to their member wine ‘pick-up’ party (yes Dave, wine is picked up – not people – ha ha!)

The grounds were beautiful, as was their contemporary winery building.  The staff was pretty friendly, though it wasn’t a stop and chat kind of environment.  The clientele were not our cup of tea – older, looked a little grumpy – but we weren’t there to make friends 🙂  Their pinots were fantastic, especially the Westside Road Neighbors pinot, and their Zin was one of the best…and that says a lot!

SUMMARY: Williams Selyem was a special treat – beautiful day, outdoor tastings including a barrel along with cheese, bread, and chocolate!  Now we know what wines we will order next year!  Williams Selyem will rank in the top 35-40 of our Top 100.

Bovine friends on Westside Road!  They were very curious and photogenic!

A Rafanelli (Dry Creek Valley)

Almost wish I didn’t read about this place in my Moon book – because otherwise I wouldn’t have been frustrated by having to make about 5 separate calls to get an appointment at this place. They have limited staff and their schedule fills up quickly (could also be because the tastings are free.) I also didn’t find the staff I spoke to over the phone very friendly and my final call where I secured the appointment reminded me of the Soup Nazi – not exactly J but it was funny. I spelled out what I wanted, took the first available time, got the key code to the gate, and hung up – very efficient. No additional questions or hesitations – I didn’t want to be told ‘no wine for you’!!

  • Production: 10-12K cases/year (2/3 zin, 1/3 cab, ~800 merlot)
  • Use very large American oak fermentation tanks – someone small still gets inside (like how it was done over at Jordan!) – Pauline
  • Chateau barrels – smaller barrels with a band, increased evaporation, increased concentration – different than ‘working’ barrels
  • Their staff lives on site and do the grape sorting at the vines
  • 80% of sales are to their wine club
  • Run by 4th generation daughters (1 is an attorney who also works here – maybe she was the grumpy one I spoke to? J)
  • 1911 – winery started, Dave Rafanelli’s grandmother Leticia was from Lucca Italy – at the age of 19 she moved to CA with her husband who deserted the Italian Navy. They chose to settle in Sonoma due to its resemblance to Tuscany.
  • They used to deliver grapes starting in 1946 in their pick-up truck.
  • Dave attended UC Davis, worked over at Lambert Bridge. At one time was told he would never get $10 for a zin!
  • May – new wine release, you can only order 1 bottle of merlot per person

Tasting – blink  and you will miss it:

  • 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5*
  • 2012 Zinfandel 3*

SUMMARY: A Rafanelli is a rustic, old-school family-owned winery located in a gorgeous and idyllic setting in Dry Creek Valley. While the wines were tasty and high quality, there were only 2 of them. Had we known there was only 2 we may not have kept the appointment. I wouldn’t say the experience was worth the wait. The service was very friendly and personalized, not at all what I expected with the A Rafanelli will rank somewhere close to 65-75 in our Top 100.

Sun 4/19


Winery-free day – our landlord was showing the house to a potential new renter so we decided to day trip to Berkeley.  I’ve never been and was looking forward to it!

We drove through the UC Berkeley campus and visited the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley:

After finally getting a parking spot in downtown tired Berkeley (sorry, this city needs a revival and more parking!), we enjoyed lunch at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen – yummy!

Tues 4/21

Von Strasser (Diamond Mountain) – #120!

Dave and I had been planning to visit a Diamond Mountain winery but didn’t really know where to go until I got a glowing recommendation for Von Strasser by Mark, my host over at Envy. There are just a small handful of wineries on Diamond Mountain and one (Constant, started by a media communications mogul) you can’t really get into anyway unless you are willing to become a member to the tune of a few grand/yr in purchases!  Our choices were Von Strasser or Reverie, and I’m very glad we went ‘Austrian’!

  • Production: 3-3.5K cases/year
  • Voted Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year for 12th consecutive year
  • Owners: Rudy and Rita Von Strasser. Rudy went to school at UC Davis. He was the first American intern at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild – after his success the French institution brings an intern from UC Davis over every year, worked as an enologist at Trefethen, assistant winemaker at Newto, Parents are from Austria.
  • Purchased the vineyard in 1990 (formerly Roddis Cellars, where the legendary Andre Tcheistcheff was the winemaker) In the 80s Pine Ridge leased the winery to make their Diamond Mountain Cabernet (love Pine Ridge!)
  • Started making chardonnay in the 80s. They lease properties to get their grapes and lost their chardonnay lease. They decided to sacrifice 1.5 acres of cabernet sauvignon (the cash cow!) to plant Gruner Veltliner.
  • Known for single vineyard cabs
  • Envy farms one of the vineyards Von Strasser leases
  • Lost wine that they stored in a warehouse, an arsonist lit it on fire and was prosecuted
  • Recommended Bremer Family, Kenzo (near Lake Berryessa/flash), Heitz (Martha’s Vineyard) – famous for a port


  • 2013 Gruner Veltliner 3* – estate vineyard, won silver medal at International Blind Tasting, 1st vintage in 2006, this is a resilient varietal, more peach and apricot compared to Austria. 530 cases
  • 2011 Cartel Selection Malbec 2.5* – more fruit-forward
  • 2010 Agira Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – southern-most vineyard, from a 6.5 acre lease since 2007 – land now owned by owner of Bubba Burgers (odd!), produces 246 cases, blend of Cabernet, Zin, and Merlot, WE – 93 pts and Cellar Selection
  • 2010 Post Cabernet Sauvignon 3-3.5* – smooth, soft tannins, full body, more Malbec in this blend (16%) in addition to Petit Verdot, 500’ elevation (400’ elevation minimum for Diamond Mountain AVA), 25 year lease, WE – 93 pts and Cellar Selection
  • 2010 Vineyard 2131 Cabernet Sauvignon 3-3.5* – youngest vintage, with 5% merlot, requires that 95% of the fruit has to be sourced from the vineyard
  • 2010 Spaulding Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – oldest vines, 1970, WE – 93 pts, Jim Spaulding (vineyard owner) started Stonegate, which Kendall Jackson bought in 2012, blend of merlot and petit verdot, balance of fruit vs restraint, elegance, drinkability, cellar-ability, and lower alcohol, 354 cases
  • PV Port 2.5-3* – 18% alcohol, add/kill yeast by adding alcohol, add a neutral alcohol (look this up)

SUMMARY: Von Strasser, our only Diamond Mountain winery visit, was a welcome late addition to our tasting itinerary. Like other hillside wineries, their juice did not disappoint and we have the credit card bills to prove it J Von Strasser has a very laid back atmosphere, a warm and welcoming black lab (a friendly dog is also almost required at the better Napa wineries!), and excellent service. There were no bells and whistles or a special insider’s tour, but there didn’t need to be. We bellyed up to the wine bar (it was a bit chilly for their large deck overlooking one of the vineyards), had a great chat with Kerry (who also graduated from SUNY Albany), and savored some of the best wine on our trip to date. Von Strasser will rank in the top 30-35 of our Top 100.


Mon 4/27

Bremer Family (Howell Mountain) – our last visit for now – #121!!

Recommended by more than a few people (ASG, Kerri over at Von Strasser, and others), we reluctantly made an appointment to visit. At this point I am tired of making reservations and our wine storage is over capacity, and we’re not sure if we can safely pack about 8 bottles to take with us to the Midwest, but we buck up and make the trek back up Howell Mountain (one of our favorite places to visit) to sample Bremer Family.

  • Production: 3K cases/yr
  • Specialize in Bordeaux varietals
  • Owners had a variety of businesses (nursery, land, concrete) before getting into the wine business as well (likely a hobby that hopefully also provides some profits.) Bremer doesn’t do any advertising – but then again I don’t think any of the small family-owned quality wineries in Napa do either!
  • Winery built in 1891
  • Our service was friendly but a bit harried as there were 2-3 other parties there and they appeared to be a bit short on staff. Not that we really minded – and it was nice to have a bit of a break from my notetaking!
  • Sooner grapes are picked, the more you can age. Waiting too long to pick results in undesirable green pepper aromas and flavors.
  • Learned that Hess lost art and 3 million of wine
  • Bremer had at least 3 winery dogs – this is a record. Most, potentially all, could be rescue dogs. We spent quite a bit of time with Curby, a black lab. These are hard-working dogs who get to mix and mingle with guests or go on tractor rides in the vineyards J
  • Aging is very unique – 36 months in oak followed by 30-36 months in the bottle. They exercise “patience without compromise”.  They also use a spectograph to analyze wine quality.
  • Recommended: Outpost, Arkenstone, Haber (Howell Mountain, Diamond Mtn red is very nice)


  • 2010 Chardonnay 3* – aged in French oak, then 2 yrs in the bottle, I thought it tasted very similar to Cakebread’s Chardonnay (which I love!) but our host didn’t seem to like it when I mentioned it to him! Buttery, med body, can age for 4-5 years. Rob Report ranks their Chardonnay as the best US white wine
  • 2008 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5* – light-medium body, blend of mountain and valley grapes, 98% cabernet with merlot and petit verdot, very smooth, soft tannins and acid,
  • 2008 Napa Claret 3* – very approachable, smooth soft tannins, ~15% cabernet franc, rest petit verdot, merlot, and cabernet, soft tannins
  • 2009 Howell Mountain Merlot 2.5* – brick red, approachable, Howell Mountain gets sun morning-evening which elongates the growing day
  • 2009 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 3* – 100% cab, soft/med tannins, ruby color, full body, very subtle, 40 acre plot
  • 2007 Seek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2.5-3* – single vineyard, 5 acres

SUMMARY: Bremer helped us round out our 120 winery visit in the Napa and Sonoma valleys on a high note. The setting is pretty, rustic, and casual – it was great to enjoy the wine outside on a gorgeous April afternoon. What makes Bremer special is that they offer their high quality wines to you pre-aged and they don’t charge you a premium for it – nice!! While the service was not as personalized as we have become accustomed to, it was worth the visit and the wines we tasted across the board were fantastic. Bremer Family will rank in the 40 range of our Top 100.

Tues 4/28

Pride Mountain Vineyards Stop (Spring Mountain)

Just a quick third honorable mention of Pride Mountain Vineyards (our #1 top selection for best winery in Napa!) and how they did us a solid. We wanted to pick up a bottle of their Viognier and their Syrah (that they didn’t have available earlier in the month.) While I knew they were closed for tastings on Tues, we decided to call to see if we could come up and pick up a few bottles that afternoon. They welcomed us and gave us a free tasting of Syrah. Very nice, I don’t think most places would’ve done that. Gold star!!

Wed 4/29

Robert Biale Revisit (Napa)

Because this is #1 of only 2 wine clubs we joined out here during our stay we decided to take advantage of our membership and return for a free ‘member’ tasting on our last full day in Napa. We enjoyed the VIP seating area reserved for members out on their patio overlooking their vineyards, and enjoyed a tasting of their fabulous zins and petite sirah.

Biale was the perfect option to close this chapter of our wonderful wine adventure in Napa!


Stay tuned for our Top 100 list – we may try to offer up some special ‘honorable mention’ categories (best wines, best experience, prettiest grounds, best value, etc.) as well to help provide more guidance on your future wine selections.

Following our May-July Chicago visit, we will spend two months in Santa Fe, New Mexico – not far from New Mexican wine country! Let the viticultural education continue!

Last, but not least, some cool images that Dave captured around the gardens of our place in St Helena!


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