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