Vol 3 No 4 How many wineries fit on the head of a pin?

Now that ole TB has got your attention, the real question is how many wineries are there in the U.S.? Answer: 8,702! That’s an increase of 5% over last year. As one would expect California leads the pack with 4,207! That should not be surprising – except the number is huge! Back to the totals: 7,061 are bonded wineries that make the wine on site, but there are also 1,641 ‘virtual’ wineries. Wine Institute

A bonded winery is licensed by the feds and has to have a specific space to store wines that have been taxed, so they can be open to inspection. A virtual winery is not in cyberspace as one might think, but make their wine in other wineries, especially ones that specifically make wine for several brands. Don’t scoff at these as many ‘cult’ wineries that produce a small number of cases, do this in order to make the operation feasible. Frankly, I was amazed there were that many, mostly in California, I am sure. Licensing is less strict for these although they have to keep the same records as other wineries.

Consider that going back to 1900-Prohibition there weren’t much more than 100 wineries in Napa Valley. Here is some data from the cited article for number of California and U.S. bonded wineries:

California       United States

1940                   474                  1,090      Just before start of WWII

1970                   240                     441      Beginning of Wine Boom

1997                1,011                  1,988      1st time Cal. >1,000

2004                2,059                  4,356      More than 2,000

2010                3,364                  7,626      More than 3,000

2014                4,285                10,417      1st time >10k for the U.S.

2017                4,202                  8,702      Likely some consolidation

If you find this interesting and would like to see more interesting facts, see  Wine Business data

Most of the increase in the 1970-1997 period, I believe, came from development of new growing areas in California (Sonoma County, Central Coast, North Coast, etc.), as well as Oregon and Washington.

Hope you found this interesting. TB started out just looking for a current number and look what he got!

Does anyone remember the wine theft at the French Laundry just before Christmas? They were caught due to an honest collector becoming suspicious after buying the wine and then going to authorities. Well, the main guy was sentenced in March, and, he admitted to another wine theft from a restaurant. So…what was his sentence? FIFTEEN Months jail time…and make restitution on $600,000. Good luck on that. I thought the punishment was supposed to fit the crime? What if he stole $50,000 from a bank? That would have been at least a ten year sentence!

Also, you may recall the fraudulent sale of wine futures by Premier Cru, an Oakland, California wine shop that has had trouble in the past. The wine inventory was sold from the store and received lower bids than expected. Now they have to divide up the proceeds between the victims…and you thought wine people was good people. Think again!

Think I’ll go have a couple of glasses of wine…my head is spinning!

TB

 

Vol 3 No 3 an evening to remember

Imagine: you get an invitation to a wine tasting by email. Not just any tasting but a vertical tasting of the first twenty-five years the winery has been in existence. The last SIX of those vintages have not been released yet – just lying in the cellar slowly aging. You received the invitation because you visited the winery and only those who have are being sent invitations. You have a choice of going to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. What would you say? Oh, I forgot, the cost was $250 including dinner…hmm just $10 per vintage.

I spent at least ten minutes thinking about it and since that winery was the highlight of my trip last year to Spain and Portugal, which included a wine cruise along the Spanish coastline tasting local wines, I made up my mind to go. Done! I chose Chicago for the ease of getting there. (See Vol 2 No 16 for the area around Barcelona and Priorat)

The winery is Clos de l’Obac (Costera del Siurana) in the Priorat region of Spain about 75 miles south of Barcelona in the town of Grattalops. It is a very small area that is encircled by the up and coming Monsant region, a DO (Denominación de Origen) since 2001, while Priorat is the gem and received its DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada), later upgraded to DOQa, (actually the same but the first was Catalyan, and the other Spanish, and is only one of two such designations in Spain, the other being La Rioja.

For the first three vintages, 1989–1991, the group of five wineries pooled their grapes, shared a winery in Gratallops, and made one wine sold under five labels:  Clos de l’Obac, Clos Dofi (later renamed to Finca Dofi), Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet and Clos Mogador. From 1992, these wines were made separately. There are several more wineries now but all are very independent of one another.

According to the owner, five people got together in 1979 – “crazy people” according to owner Carles Pastrana, and they bought and developed vineyards and a winery in Grattalops. The vineyards dated back over 100 years and were originally planted by the Romans and monks at the monastery of Scala Dei. Besides Clos de l’Obac, the wineries were Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet, Clos Mogador, Clos Dofi. The first three vintages were made in then only winery in Grattalops, then they each made their own wine. Later Mas Doix, Scala Dei, and others appeared and some of the original five had name changes.

In 1995, Clos de l’Obac finished in the top four in a tasting in Stockholm. The four top were 1989 Clos de l’Obac, Chateau Le Pin, Cos d’Estournel, all tied and only surpassed by five points by Chateau Pétrus. Carlos then made the unusual decision to make the blend the same from that point on: 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% garnacha, and 10% each of merlot, syrah, and cariñena. His theory is that the grapes and wine have a personality, while the climate and weather provide the character. He has been criticized for this but to him, he is using the best formula he knows to make wine and the differences by year are only due to the weather. I tease him about being ‘the lazy winemaker’, but if that were the case his wines would not be so well received. More significantly, since they do not buy grapes or juice from other wineries, what happens if there is a light harvest of one of the 10% varietals? He cuts back production, which can hardly be called efficient, and sells the excess to other wineries. He also does the blending at the harvest, rather than after aging in separate barrels that are then ‘assembled’ to the desired proportions. The wine is fined using egg whites but never filtered. This is accomplished in his gravity flow winery by adding an additional tank by the bottling area. The wine goes into this and is left for a few weeks which creates a natural filtering when the wine is drawn off and bottled.

Here is how the tasting was organized. First, there were only 24 people participating including Carles, his wife Mariana, his importer Jon Cancilla and his wife. That meant a total of 600 glasses which were delivered in flights of five beginning with the 1990 (which only had four wines because he had saved the 1989, a magnum for last. Small plates (tapas), that would pair well with the wine were served with each flight. Only after we were done with the flight was there any discussion of what we thought. Here are my conclusions:

While there were distinct differences between the vintages (especially in the mid-2000’s due to steadily warmer temperatures which caused the alcohol level to go from a steady 13.5% to 14.5-16%, but even then the wines did not taste hot, nor were they the fruit bombs so popular with critics and employed by California wine makers. These were all excellent food wines), but there was no oxidation or browning of any of the wines. They were all fresh and vibrant. By the way all of the wines were opened three hours before serving but not decanted. When it came to the final 1989 vintage, it showed no sign of age and fruit. It was very soft and pleasant, with very little tannin. I believe the tasting confirmed Carles’ theory of personality and character and that the differences between vintages would have been far greater if the blend had been varied. I began, as and am even more so now, a fan of these excellently made wines.

As for the tasting and venue, it was perfectly orchestrated and the pairings were all unique and excellent. It was just over three hours and the time went by very quickly.

TB

Vol.4 No. 5 some potpourri…

This will be short and sweet as not much of the rest of the trip related directly to wine, but you might find it of interest.

We drove from Calistoga to Jacksonville, Oregon the next day, in and out of heavy rains. When we crossed the Sacramento River near Williams on I-5, I had never seen the river so full. It was just before this that they became concerned that the Oroville Dam could collapse.

We stayed with my sister-in-law in Jacksonville, a town near Ashland but without so many tourists due to the Shakespeare Festival. Previously, we have gone with her to visit many of the Applegate wineries, and I was amazed that there are even more now.

She took me to Dancin Vineyards, the name coming from combining those of husband and wife owners, Dan and Cindy. It also tied in with Cindy’s love of dance. They have built a beautiful winery and restaurant and there are some scattered tables with umbrellas away from the building. Their focus is on pinot noir and chardonnay which they both love, their tastes having migrated from big red cabs. I recommend a stop to enjoy the winery and their award-winning wines, which also includes a port-like wine.

Our next stop was to visit family in Bend, Oregon, the brewpub capital of the USA. We tasted some great beers, visit a legal pot shop which was very clean and more like a jewelry store. We also had a great dinner at the Pine Ridge Inn, and is just a typical restaurant and bar in the front but the dining room in the rear is the place to be. It is highlighted by two huge pine trees growing in the center of the room through the ceiling. It is owned by Bill McCormick, one of the founders of McCormick & Schmicks after he sold his interest.

The next day we drove all the way to Seattle and other than some rush hour traffic at the end it was uneventful. We visited friends there, including our oldest friends who loaned us the car. There are a few things we did that might be of general interest.

First, stayed at the Hyatt on Lake Union, which has beautiful views of the lake. Second, we had a Sunday brunch at Bastile over in the town of Ballard, which is always fun to visit. Then we visited the new Starbuck’s Roastery, which is a pilot program that proved successful as a very high end coffee bar. It is reminiscent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and thus a magnet for families. It ain’t cheap though, but a fun experience. They are opening one in New York City and in Shanghai in 2018…check it out.

Secondly, the guys went to a whiskey bar I have wanted to visit since hearing about it. A friends son and a world-class bartender have in a few short years created, Canon, in downtown Seattle, and rated the sixth best whiskey bar in the world. While the basic cocktails are typically priced, their specialties can run from the $15-20 range and for a few made with extremely old liquors, into the hundreds. But that is just the hook. All of us enjoyed our drinks, while sitting at the bar which I highly recommend because the bartenders are experts at making their most exotic cocktails. I had Sazerac Experience ($20) which was made in three variations: Cognac, Rye, and Cognac & Ry in combination. It was fantastic.

We drove with our friends back down to Portland where they left us at other friends home and continued on their way back home. They took us to Archery Summit Winery for a tasting and it turned out to be a tie-in for the book. The winery was the creation of Gary Andrus who also started Pine Ridge in Napa Valley. Due to a divorce the winery was sold and Gary started this project. He built the first wine caves in Oregon under basalt, and the tasting was held deep in the caves following a tour. Gary died and the winery was sold to an investment group but it runs pretty much the way he did. They are expensive pinot noirs but the closest I have ever found to Burgundy. It is expensive but a fantastic experience!

Lastly, we stopped on the way back at Domaine Drouhin, which also makes Burgundian pinot’s. It is a large winery and the wines, under the direction of Veronique Drouhin, are very nice, especially the two reserves, Laurene and Louisa, named after her two daughters. The latter is very limited and only available to club members.

It was an incredible trip despite the occasional torrential rains and after three and a half weeks, including catching a horrible cold the last day, we were ready for home. Interesting that the entire time we were gone it was warmer in Minnesota than on the West Coast!

 

Vol 3 No. 2.4 off to Dry Creek Valley

The thin ribbon of a canyon beside the Silverado Trail leads from Calistoga to the Alexander Valley. It is a pleasant drive that opens up past the canyon to more vineyards and wineries. Most notable is Silver Oak Cellars in Geyserville just off Highway 101. It was an offshoot from their Oakville winery that has produced many of the great cabernets. It was built by Justin Meyer and Ray Duncan but some years ago Justin sold his interest to Ray and his partners. I only point this out to show the breadth in the Alexander Valley, which I could have spent more time in if I wasn’t conducting interviews for my book project.

Also note that north of Geyserville is Cloverdale, from which you can go over the mountain towards the coast and descend into the Anderson Valley, which also has many good wineries including sparkling wine producer Roederer Estate, owned by the French Champagne producer, Louis Roederer which produces their top of the line Crystal. But as you drop down into the valley the first you come to is Meyer Family Cellars, opened by Justin Meyer after selling his interest in Silver Oak. We stumbled upon this winery and not knowing about it entered the tasting room where Justin was working alone. Sadly, a few years later he died but the winery continues under his wife Bonnie, son Matt and his wife. Again, I had wanted to go up there but time was too short but Justin will be part of the book project.

The car’s GPS brought me to a series of turns until I was headed west again (to the south is the town of Healdsburg and the normal way I enter the Dry Creek Valley), and not paying too much attention realized the road had gone up a small mountain and as it rode the crest I noticed Ridge Winery, a fav, to my left and realized that I had ended up on Lytton Springs Road. From there it gradually descends until it turns and ends up in the valley on West Dry Creek Road. You can follow the road around the entire valley which is just over a mile wide at the widest part, the center filled in with wineries, and a few bridges for shortcuts crossing the creek. To the west is Lake Sonoma which closes the valley.

I turned left and drove to Lambert Bridge. On the corner is the Dry Creek General Store and Bar, operating since 1881. It is a must stop for us, to get a coffee drink or pick up a lunch for an afternoon picnic. Don’t miss it. It has a colorful history and good food. It is now owned by Gena Gallo of the Gallo family who owns a respected winery just down the road. Last December, the bookkeeper was just convicted of embezzling $416,000 over the prior seven years. The bar is a locals hangout but is supposed to be a great ‘dive bar’.

Drinking my latte, I drove back west to Unti Vineyards, a must visit. I discovered it around 1998 when I purchased some of their syrah on line. The next trip there, we stopped and never miss the opportunity of visiting their tasting room. It is no nonsense but they are so friendly that you immediately feel at home. I met with Mick Unti, the son of George who planted the vineyards in 1990, although the family had owned the land for decades. I learned from Mick their close ties to their native Italy and how they had planted sangiovese, along with barbera, segromigno, verdicchio, as well as the syrah. All are well-made and can hold up well to their Italian counterparts due to the combination of soils and climate, with afternoon breezes coming off the lake. I thought I might be able to use Unti for the book project and came away convinced of it.

After that it was across the bridge to the first Dry Creek winery I ever tasted: A. Rafanelli. The first time I tried their zin I loved it. We were at the former Heritage House in Mendocino, and it was recommended. The next day in town I found a case of 375ml bottles and we have been buying and drinking it ever since. The founder Alberto came over from Italy in the early 1900’s. Prohibition came and went and they produced grapes which were sold to other wineries. Then in 1979, son Americo turned it into a winery and then passed to son, Dave. Dave has kept the style the same but made gradual improvements in the wine which has a cult following and is a great value in the $40-50 range as is their only other wine, a great cab.The fourth generation is now making wine with daughters Rasheel (Shelly) the winemaker, and Stacy the operations manager. The winery is open by appointment only and production is small so it sells out quickly, mainly to fans who have been on the mailing list for years. I always knew that the family would be in my book project and after taking our glasses of zin to the far corners of the caves to talk, I am convinced of it.

My last stop was to be Montemaggiore, built and founded by Lise and Vince Ciolino. Being first generation winemakers wouldn’t seem to qualify them for the book project since they only began the winery on a hilltop on the south side of the valley, but I tasted their syrah when I was down on the Central Coast and spent the next year trying to find them. When I did, I saw why. Both had careers in the technology industry, Lise in marketing and Vince in sales. When the company was sold they got married and immediately bought the land and planted the vineyard as well as a beautiful villa. Lise’s father was a collector and her first wine was at Hermitage where she fell in love with syrah. She makes the wine and he is the viticulturist. In addition, he planted olive trees and makes award winning olive oil. They make reds, whites, and a rosé, but syrah and a cab/syrah blend are at the top of the list. They have a son, Paolo, who is a teenager now and just recently had an offer they couldn’t refuse on the winery. It occurred to them that they had only had two vacations in sixteen years, and both related to wine. When I contacted them about the book project they informed me that the winery had just been sold – however, they retained the name and would continue to make wine on a smaller scale at a winery friends own. I expect the quality to continue.

So instead of meeting at the winery, we had lunch in Healdsburg, and caught up on all of our adventures over the past several years. Rather than disqualify them from the book they will remain a part of it as the exception to the rule.

After lunch, I drove back over the mountains past the Petrified Forest and Old Faithful Geyser to Calistoga where our friends joined us.

The next day, we had some free time in the morning and I thought of an old standby to visit: Chateau Montelena, not far away. It had been several years since our last visit and it had changed for the better. The tasting room had stand-up round tables where an associate would discuss the wines with you. All seemed eager and knowledgeable and as always the wines were great. The chateau was built by Albert Tubbs in 1888 as a barrel making facility and is built of stone. It is charming with a lake and a few islands for members to enjoy. Bo Barrett, who succeeded father George as CEO still runs the winery with Matt Crafton, winemaker. Wife, Heidi, is arguably the busiest winery consultant in the valley and also owns La Sirena, while together they make award-winning Barrett & Barrett cabernets which have a cult following. They are busy people and Heidi will only accept consulting jobs within 45 minutes of home, where she flies a helicopter to reach some of the far reaching clients, so she can also be an active mother.

That makes Napa Valley a rap. Hope you enjoyed the trip and maybe found some new wineries to visit.

TB

Vol 3 No 2.3 visiting some old Napa favorites

To those of you who dream of owning a chateau in Napa Valley try this and Dream.  Keep in mind what I said in the last blog about valley floor land going for $350-450,000 and acre. I saw this right after I posted and wanted it to share with you.

While Napa Valley was able to avoid the Santa Clarafication that Silicone Valley caused, it has developed its own problems of traffic and a cost of living that means workers must come from more than an hour away. Agricultural minimum-sized plots were 10 acres in 1969, when we could have bought land for $5,000 an acre (of course good wines from here were selling for around $5 a bottle). As the boom developed they raised the minimum to 20 acres which prevented the conversion to residential and commercial properties. Now, even one acre would eliminate the problem.

The original landmarks on the highway remain with few major changes in appearance: B.V., Louis Martini, Inglenook (now Francis Ford Coppola Winery). Beringer’s Rhine House, Christian Brothers Greystone, and some visible from the highway. These are interspersed with the new wineries. The Robert Mondavi Winery was the first to change the character which further changed with the OPUS joint venture with Rothschild. One that is missing is the little red shack on Hwy 29, that was for decades the Heitz tasting room. It has been replaced by a nice stone building with vine-covered trellises that blends in with the environment and provides surprises when you enter the tasting room.

Through friends, one of whom unbeknownst to me was related to Joe Heitz, a group of us,  made a pilgrimage to Napa Valley with me doing the planning. The year was 1978, and his nephew said his uncle had a small ‘mom and pop’ winery there. I said sure we can go there and shrugged it off. His uncle was Joe Heitz and on a beautiful Napa Valley morning I was surprised to find out that that was our destination. As we sat on the deck with Joe and his wife Alice, drinking a riesling and enjoying sausages with it, I abandoned my wine snobbery. There was something about this man and following a guided tour, I was hooked on Joe and his wines. So much so, that when I tried his 1974 Martha’s Vineyard Anniversary bottling, I purchased a case at $25 a bottle; the most I had ever paid at that time. Consider that most of the name brands were still well around $5 a bottle. It was also the most luscious cabernet I had ever had. Joe kept saying we didn’t have to buy anything but we wanted it that time and enjoyed it over the next several years – until I was down to the last bottle.

Whenever I visited the ‘little red shack’ and Joe was there he would smile and greet me with “hi, Bill”. Thus I had a strong relationship with him and his wines that lasted. Joe was a smart man with simple, sound values. He had learned under Andre Tchelistcheff, and then went to Fresno State College to set up a viticulture program, where later his son would graduate: they had classes but not a major. He was there for six years then bought the land for his winery. This is background for something he told me that day: “people think of wine as romantic but owning a vineyard is nothing more than agriculture…it’s farming.” That thought stuck with me all these years. One last thing about the tasting room: it is perhaps the last in the valley with no tasting fee. When some charge $25, $50, or even $100, that is amazing and they still make good wines.

I drove over to the Silverado Trail and up Taplin Lane to the winery and the old home. Going inside the building, Kathleen Heitz, Joe’s daughter and the business manager, sat down with me to discuss Joe and the winery. Her brother, David, is the winemaker, and she told me that her dad had been hospitalized when that ’74 was made and he guided David through the process and never failed to give him credit for the wine. That is some kind of a winemaker and man! It’s nice to return to a place and although it had physically changed, what you liked about it is still the same. The wine was named one of the top 10 wines of the century by the Wine Spectator, and President Reagan took it to a 1982 State dinner in Paris.

Just down the hill on the opposite side of the road is the Joseph Phelps Winery. I decided to visit it and while no one from the family was down I saw that much had changed of the winery which is perched on a hill overlooking the vineyards and the valley floor. The two Joe’s were good friends and while Heitz’s specialty was his cabernet’s, Phelps produced the first Bordeaux blend of cabernet in the Left Bank style, under the name Insignia.

My final stop of the day was with an old friend, George Hendry. George is the only ‘rocket scientist’ in the wine business. In fact, he had just completed consulting work on a cyclotron. His father was a professor at U.C. Berkeley and purchased the land on Redwood Road, just above Hwy 29, north of Napa. Originally they had farm animals and grapes which when George took over became all vineyards. We met at ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers at their annual tasting event in San Francisco when I was pouring for Lamborn Family Vineyards. Each year I would seek him out because I enjoyed talking with him but also because his zin’s appealed to my taste like no other besides the Lamborn.

I also visited the winery for tours and tastings with friends coming to the Valley. George conducts all the tours personally, and as for thoroughness, I recall standing in the hot sun for what seemed 20 minutes explaining the vineyard and its characteristics as well as his philosophy. The tastings were also unique as George would describe the wines with you and loved to use ‘experiment’s’ to make his points. These tours were always the highlight for friends I brought to the winery. No one ever had a bad wine at those tastings. All were beautifully made and very good examples of each varietal.

When George walked in for our meeting, he didn’t seem to have changed. His charm, humor, and the inevitable taste experiments, were still there. We discussed the longevity of the winery and he proudly said, “I never quit my day job.” He understood what many, especially those who only consume wine, don’t know: it is all about cashflow. He never brought in partners because their time horizon might be different than his and he wanted to make wine his way. He had watched many wineries fail or change hands because of a lack of understanding that stuff happens. When that happens, partnerships sour, banks call loans, and much more. Thus his conservative way of running the business has paid off. He also sells his excess fruit in some years, but whereas payment is usually made after the wine is made and sold, he requires a partial payment with the sale, which attests to the quality of the fruit he produces. It was George who told me about land prices around Yountville running from $350-$450,000 an acre. Such is the lure and lore of Napa Valley.

His advice to those who want to own a winery or be a winemaker is “forget about a 40 hour week,” and “the hours are not always when you want them to be.” He also said, what Joe Heitz told me over four decades ago, “wine making is farming.”

We finished tasting our wine and I drove home…into the traffic…and glad that I had visited him again. The drive back to Calistoga took 20 minutes longer than in the middle of the day but I had a lot to process during the drive. The only person I had wanted to visit was Mike Grgich, who was unavailable.

TB

 

 

 

Vol. 3 No 2.2 on the road to Napa

(Note: an apology for the delay in this post. The cold I had turned into an infection that has plagued me since. Finally, on my second course of medications, my body is winning the battle. Hopefully, I can get back on track to finish this story and tell of my most interesting vino experience that occurred last week. TB)

We drove up towards Napa taking Hwy 37 across to Sonoma and the heart of the Carneros Region. Carneros in Spanish means ‘rams’ (although it sounds like it would mean any animal such as cattle), and we were going to a winery on bay side Sonoma Raceway. I was familiar with the area because, besides taking a driving course at the track, a classmate from high school, Vicki Lott had married Sam Sebastiani and after a falling out with the family, they built Viansa Winery, a combining of both their names, here. It is like an Italian hill town and very charming. This, however, was not our destination but I mention it as this area is not on the radar for most Napa Valley visitors. We were headed for Ramsgate Winery, and when you reach the top of the hill it is situated on you are immediately stunned by the elegance of the winery. It is very modern but in an environmental way with an amazing use of blending wood with concrete. We were greeted in the atrium with two glasses of their pinot blanc to enjoy as we toured the winery with our guide. The wine was perfect and only added to the visual sensations.

Carneros is the best area in Napa Valley for pinot noir, and chardonnay, as it is not only the coolest region, but the proximity to San Pablo Bay provides cooling breezes even on the hottest summer days. That is not just my view but one that was expressed decades ago by great Andre Tchelistcheff, who was the inspiration for my book project. It took decades before the cooler climes of Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara County would be found to have similar attributes.

A friend of mine and a few of his long time friends decided buy the land and create the winery, and they have done wonders. Looking out on the marshes of the bay with gentle sloping vineyards pointing the way they are planting mainly the two varietals, Andre said would prosper. In the meantime, they are sourcing fruit from some of the best North Coast vineyards and their acclaimed winemaker, Jeff Gaffner, is producing great wines.

A group of friends could really enjoy just walking through the winery and finding one of the comfortable niches to relax in, or walk down the slope to a table and chairs and enjoy the natural look of the vineyard with the contrasting, yet not out of place, winery in the background. Note that reservations are required and while the costs are not small, they are in line with other new wineries. The point is, you get a lot for your dollar, something I failed to see in some of the other similar (not architecturally) wineries in the Valley. While they don’t have a restaurant, due to local ordinance, they have excellent pairings with their wines in their spacious event room overlooking the bay. Highly recommended. For more information visit their website at: Ramsgate Winery, the pictures alone are worth clicking.

From there we drove north to the Napa/Sonoma Road where there are several other wineries to visit, or you can keep going into the heart of Sonoma County wineries, some of which will be discussed in this series.

Some of you are aware of the quality of Howell Mountain wines, which is attested to as it being made a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley ava, in 1983, the very first. This was because of distinct characteristics such as the soils (volcanic), altitude, as high as 800 feet above the valley floor, which makes the temperatures more moderate (10 degrees higher in winter and a like amount cooler in summer while catching the evening breezes that blow over the valley floor), and creating a distinct terroir.

We arrived at Lamborn Family Vineyards, atop the mountain, which produces exceptional cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel’s. Mike Lamborn sat with us on his deck overlooking the vineyards and the distant mountains to the east and south.

I met Mike when he was a neighbor in, not to distant, Orinda, California. About eight years later I learned that he and his dad, Bob, one of the most interesting people I have met in the industry. They had to ‘unload’ some inventory that was costing them money by taking up warehouse space due to a distributor not fully promoting the wines. At the time, zin was all they produced, and it was very good as one would expect with winemaker/family friend, Heidi Peterson Barrett producing it. That was the beginning of a great relationship that drew me into the wine industry by frequent visits to the vineyard, pouring wine at events, and stimulating my interest in wine, beyond just a beverage.

I love Howell Mountain wines, and find the zinfandel’s far above other appellations. That may just be a preference but I believe, and have generally had agreement by winemakers that the spectrum of flavors is probably more distinct than any varietal except pinot noir. There is none that I like more and only a few that I would put in the same tier. As for the cab’s, they have Heidi’s imprimatur, guaranteeing an excellent wine now and for years.

You won’t find Mike’s wine in stores, which is similar for most of the other wineries I visited on this trip. The internet has opened direct client marketing and that plus membership clubs, allows most or all to be sold direct, saving a 35% haircut which is even more significant for a small winery operation. He does have a few select restaurants that he allows to serve his wine, another common trait.

Even though the Lamborn’s bought their two parcels before the land boom, selling the wine through distributors would significantly reduce profits, and for those purchasing land in the valley today at prices of $350,00 an acre, direct selling  is imperative.

Visits to all Howell Mountain wineries are by appointment only. This is due to avoiding congestion in this rural area, and similar regions, so contacting a winery you are interested in directly is the answer. Speaking of the congestion, even though we were there in February, and in the wettest winter since 1935, there is always late afternoon traffic on Hwy 29, especially between Rutherford and Calistoga. This was primarily due to the level of local drivers. It is dreadful during the tourist season.

As along the Central Coast, I have never seen the valley so lush and beautiful. It has been years since this last occurred. After our visit, we drove to Calistoga, at the north end of the valley, for what was the nicest lodging I have found, on a par with the aforementioned Petit Soleil in San Luis Obispo (and no I do not receive anything for mentioning any lodging or restaurant, it is a service to make readers trips more enjoyable). It is the Cottage Grove Inn. This former small trailer park just past downtown Calistoga is truly unique. Each room is a separate building and all have every amenity you can imagine. Like Petit Soleil, the wine and cheese hour features good wines, cheeses and other surprises, and a wonderful buffet breakfast. Want to be in the wine region but also be alone, this is the place to let down. If you are planning to visit the adjoining Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Anderson Valley, or Healdsburg or head back to Sonoma, this is an outstanding location.

When we first came to Napa Valley in 1969 there was only one place to stay other than the hotel in St. Helena or in downtown Napa. We have stayed at several, beginning with the first and only in the valley, La Bonita motel just out of town on Hwy 29 in St. Helena. It is a traditional motor court motel, but they have kept it up and it gets high reviews for a reasonably-priced place to stay in the valley and in a great location. I was surprised when we drove past it and even more  I heard it was more than it looked like, confirmed when I went to their website. Imagine what the value of the land is!

More Napa wineries next.

TB