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.