Touring Napa and Sonoma
By Denman Moody author, The Advanced Oenophile
A great visit highlighting great vintages
Visiting a winery in northern California used to consist of standing in a line at a tasting room, and being served, sometimes complimentary, by a middle-aged or older person who was doing it as a part-time hobby or for supplemental retirement income. For many wineries now, the scene has changed dramatically. For one thing, the wines in Sonoma and particularly Napa are so expensive, they can’t afford to give them away, so a tasting charge is de rigueur. Let’s start:
Inglenook — Some of the most acclaimed wines ever made in Napa Valley were the “cask” Cabernets from the ’40s and ’50s from Inglenook. Sadly, there were few connoisseurs and collectors around to garner kudos for them; therefore, Inglenook concentrated on and made its name with excellent jug wines — starter wines for many who are drinking great wines today!
In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historic property — 1882 being Gustave Niebaum’s first vintage at Inglenook — and started production of his flagship wine Rubicon in 1978.
For purposes of this article, a visit to Inglenook is totally different from one of even 15 years ago. The incredible structure, built in 1887 and restored in 1997, and the internal changes regarding visitor experiences are astounding, including tours of the building, the Infinity caves, the vineyards and options for seated tastings, and barrel tastings with or without seasonal, organic food pairings from winery chef Alex Lovick’s kitchen. And the winemaker,Philippe Bascaules, has a classy pedigree having been at Chateau Margaux for 21 years!
A final item of interest is that the tastings are led by five wine educators who have achieved level 2 certificates or above from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The tasting options range from $45 to $135 per person. Visit inglenook.com.
Raymond — Owned by the “King” of the wine country Jean-Charles Boisset (the “Queen” is his wife Gina Gallo), Raymond is a place to marvel and gush over! Incredible! raymondvineyards.com
Continuum — After Robert Mondavi sold to Constellation Brands in 2004, he spent years planning with his daughter Marci and son Tim for a world-class winery, resulting in one of the most state-of-the-art wineries ever built, with gorgeous, scenic views to boot. The successful effort has yielded something to behold. Understated, but pure class. With the winery only recently completed, the 2013 vintage is the first complete estate effort. The Cabernet Sauvignon is $200 a bottle, and in one of my rare scores, I give it a 98! Close to perfection. By appointment only. continuumestate.com
Spottswoode — Mary Weber Novak moved to the Spottswoode Estate in 1972 when the vineyard was 90 years old. As much as she loved it, she had very little idea what it would become — she likes to call it “terroir, place and somewhereness.” Just a few blocks from downtown St. Helena, gifted winemaker Aaron Weinkauf, who had previously worked with Paul Hobbs, makes three amazing wines: Sauvignon Blanc $38: Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon $75; and Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon $165. By appointment only. spottswoode.com
Chappellet — This winery with a view owns the word-famous Pritchard Hill Vineyard, over 1,000 feet above sea level, and producing world-class wines for almost 50 years. Rare depth, longevity and elegance are descriptive words for its wines. In 2008, Chappellet implemented a huge solar panel system that should reduce greenhouse gases by 4,513,275 pounds over 30 years. In 2012, the vineyard achieved California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The winemaker, Phillip Corello-Titus, has been hands on for a quarter of a century, and he also makes the winery’s excellent Sonoma-Loeb brand as well as his family wine Titus. By appointment only. chappellet.com
Other fabulous wineries to visit in Napa Valley: Far Niente; Quintessa; Nickel & Nickel; Frank Family (with unrivaled tasting room guru Dennis Zabloski holding forth); Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars; Duckhorn; Colgin (by invitation only — no appointments); Antica (owned by Piero Antinori from Tuscany); and Revana (owned by Houston cardiologist and vein specialist Dr. Madaiah Revana).
Vérité — Some of the best wines in California, or anywhere in the world, are produced at Vérité. For example, in the ’07 and ’08 vintages of the three Bordeaux-style wines: La Muse (Pomerol); Le Decir (St. Emilion); and La Joie (Left Bank), five received 100 Parker scores and the sixth received a 99!! 2012 and 2013 are almost the same. The late Jess Jackson apparently gave Bordeaux and Tuscan winemaker Pierre Seillan his choice of all the Jackson vineyards in Sonoma County to choose from to craft the best wines possible, and Seillan has over delivered!
The release price for these wines is $390 a bottle, and a tasting, by appointment only and relatively expensive, is recommended only for serious oenophiles and collectors. veritewines.com
Patz & Hall and MacRostie — Two of my favorite producers and favorite places to visit are Patz & Hall and MacRostie. These producers of highest-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have just catapulted to a higher level with new, first-class tasting rooms. A visit to each is highly recommended. Each makes Sonoma Coast and Russian River appellations, and each makes, in the style of Nickel & Nickel in Napa, single vineyard, single varietals from only top vineyards.
MacRostie — Reservations are required on weekends and strongly recommended for weekdays. firstname.lastname@example.org
Patz & Hall — By appointment only. email@example.com
Other fabulous wineries to visit in Sonoma County: Jordan (the Estate Tour, between April and November from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., is possibly the premier tour and tasting in wine country — admission $120 each — call for reservations); Iron Horse; Lancaster; Lynmar (recommended for tasting and picnic lunch — call ahead); DeLoach (owned by Jean-Charles Boisset); and Rodney Strong.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP
My most recent trip to Sonoma and Napa was facilitated by VisitNapaValley.com, where I discovered interesting, new information. I recommend it as a pre-visit must. Among the stops I added to my trip from this site, and all recommended are: Meritage Resort and Spa Napa Valley — Brand new with superb rooms, service, food, Trinity Tasting room, and even a good-sized bowling alley! Slightly south of Napa, so not much more than an hour and 20 minutes from San Francisco if light traffic. Room for two with king, $429. Harvest Table in St. Helena — A Charlie Palmer restaurant, the locally sourced ingredients for the excellent dishes are said to be “the best of the Napa Valley.” Great food and memorable experience!! — CA’ MOMI in Napa — Amazing Italian food and impressive house-cured meats. Good food, fun atmosphere!