Archive for the ‘St. Helena’ Category

Wolf Family Vineyards – 171

Saturday, October 1st, 2005

Wolf_sign_1As a special surprise birthday present, Doug Wolf bought for his wife, Jane, a *small* house quietly nestled on the edge of the Mayacamas Mountain foothills in St. Helena. Living in San Francisco, this was not going to be a permanent residence, but a weekend getaway that is often inhabited by the family moreso during the summer months. The elegant and stately old house was built in the mid-1800s and happened to be in the middle of roughly 29 acres of vineyard grapes.

Karen_in_front_of_bldgThis was in 1997 and at the time, the grapes (mostly merlot!) were owned and managed by the Jaeger family. The Wolfs did not buy the estate for the purpose to make wine, but when you have quality acreage in St. Helena, you can either sell off your bounty to other winemakers, or make the wine yourself. Wolf Family Vineyards was born! The merlot was pulled out and replaced with cabernet sauvignon and Karen Culler was hired as the consulting winemaker. She has been responsible for producing Wolf’s namesake wine from the very first vintage.

05_inside_cave_1I was extremely fortunate to have Karen show me around the property on a very warm afternoon. A small building was constructed to produce the wine along with a tiny cave that Karen calls a doll’s cave due to its diminutive size. The cave is so small, it can only hold one vintage’s worth of barrels and on the day of our visit, she had just had the 2004 vintage removed, readying the cave for the incoming 2005 grapes. The production level of Wolf’s wine varies each year, but the cave itself cannot hold more than 1,000 cases and they have never produced much more than that with their three total offerings.

09_gazeboThe beauty of the surrounding property is astounding. The reservoir has a spouting fountain which can be admired from a water-front gazebo or the adjacent expansive vistas. Surrounding gardens include the decorative from dahlias and roses, to the pratical tomatoes and strawberries. Entirely envious of the family, it must be emphasized that this is not a winery open to the public — or even by appointment — and I have refrained from showing the gorgeous house to respect their privacy.

07_bottlesI am infinitely grateful to Ms. Culler for taking quality time during harvest to show me around and allow me to taste the wines. There is no website from which to order the wine. If you want it, I would suggest contacting some of the more prestigious wine stores around the United States. A quick glance through Wine-Searcher shows Wolf Family wines available, mostly in California but some also in New York.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc – 40 cases produced. Rich, classic cat piss with layers of grass. Soft, smooth entry that is textured and luxurious expanding to display hay, a bit of lemon, and a creamy meringue finish. No price – unlikely to be purchasable.

2002 Cabernet Franc – 120 cases produced. 85% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. I believe in previous vintages, this wine is occasionally sold as a Meritage. Karen explained that the blend does change every year, depending on the quality of the grapes, but that she tries to keep it CabFranc-heavy. If memory serves, it might have been the ’00 or ’01 vintage that was CabSauv-heavy. This offering is a dark, inky blackish red in color with layers of aromas including dark cherry, herbal, and noted terroir. The taste shows spice and well-balanced minerals with a tease of intense violet. The silky texture entices with a slightly minty finish. Internet searches show this wine between $50 and $65.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon – 700 cases produced. 100% Cabernet, this wine is dark with earthy currant and blackberry notes. The entry is initially a little sweet and then blossoms to a rich middle palate of dark spice, developed oak and black fruit, and a finish showing depth and elegance. $60

Wolf Family Vineyards (Office information) ~ 3701 Sacramento Street, #366 ~ San Francisco ~ CA ~ 94118 ~ 707-963-6042

Napa Cellars – 157

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

Cd_signI have long admired the Napa Cellars‘ logo. The clean pen-and-ink drawing of an up-turned hand, scrolled elegantly upward. It is the type of script that makes me believe it actually says something, but I’m not brilliant enough to see it. What is the orb floating above the hand? A grape? The world? Is the hand waiting to grasp what is plunging downwards towards the grasp or has the hand just flung the sphere into the air? Questions like this plague me, I’m afraid and I doubt I will ever have a definitive answer. But I like it, regardless.

Cd_bldgNapa Cellars is one of the first wineries that greets visitors entering the Napa Valley via Highway 29. The building is a Bucky-Fuller geodesic dome (albeit a slightly squashed, low-slung dome). It is one of the rare down-valley wineries boasting a public picnic facility — something of a rarity I have come to learn.

Cd_tasting_roomDespite the impression that the building is mildly squat, the interior tasting room is surprisingly open with its vaulted ceilings and sky lights. During my visit, some first time wine tasters were visiting from out-of-state and the pouring staff were extremely helpful in the instruction of Wine-Tasting 101. This is actually rather refreshing as I have witnessed far too many occasions where those just starting out were treated with more condescension instead of congeniality. Easy to drink and affordable, Napa Cellars is a great place to begin when first visiting the Napa Valley.

2004 Vin Gris – An odd rosé blend of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Pale, pink color with fresh berry aromas that is only a tad sweet on entry. Surprisingly integrated and not too tangy. Fresh finish. $14.95

2002 Napa Valley Zinfandel – From south St. Helena, this produces a rich, soft nose of dark spice including nutmeg and clove that just barely hides a hint of black pepper. Chocolate entry sweetens in the mid-palate to a long, dry finish of cocoa. $19.75

2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Toasty nose with a touch of green bell pepper. Dry entry produces cedar and dark berry. The finish was a tad thin. $25.75

2001 Napa Valley Syrah – From a north Napa vineyard, only 500 cases were produced. Sweet licorice and blackberry liqueur show richness and complexity. Chewy mouth entry expands with dark fruit and vanilla. $32.50

2001 Late Harvest Zinfandel – Full bodied and rich, a medium amount of herbs keeps it from being overly sweet. Integrated fruit and cocoa. $29.75

Napa Cellars ~ 7481 St. Helena Highway ~ Oakville ~ CA ~ 94562 ~ 707-944-2565

Raymond – 156

Friday, September 9th, 2005

Raymond_signIn the Napa valley, between Highway 29 and the Silverardo Trail, there are just a few access roads that connect to two main arteries which keep the life blood of America’s most famous wine area flowing. For visitors to the Napa valley, it is exactly those wineries on the 29 and the Silverado Trail which see the majority of the business. But it is those little-travelled access roads which often house worthwhile investigation. Raymond Winery is just such a find.

Raymond_bldgZinfandel Lane is one of the connecting roads and lies just south of the town of St. Helena. There are actually only two or three public wineries on this road, the rest being appointment-only. The surprise is that I had driven past Raymond dozens of times without realizing it was there, being so well hidden by shrubbery and plant life. Driving through a maze of vines from the entrance, the winery complex comes into view, reflecting a 1950s ranch house in its epoch, lying low to the ground. Despite the sense of entering fifty-year old time warp, the landscaping is open, vast, and inviting due to the predominance of colorful flowers.

Raymond_tasting_room_1The tasting room is similarly austere with a touch of non-tangible nostaligia. There is nothing specific in alluding to the age; perhaps it is merely the architecture. The tasting room is not overwhelmed with retail items and the pouring staff is extremely gracious and helpful. The big draw? The wines — truly excellent quality juice at moderately affordable prices. At a production level of 300,000 cases, it is an impressive facility that is producing a LOT of wine worth tasting:

2003 Napa Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – Golden bouquet of melon and tropical fruit. Very smooth, easy mouth feel with a touch of cream and no stridency. Crisp finish that keeps going, finishing with a heightened green apple flavor. $12.50

2003 Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay – At a caseload production of almost 25,000 cases, this is a  pretty substantial amount of wine. Fresh fruit of pear, mango, and papaya aromas. The smooth, soft entry seems a bit flabby to me, but finishes with a bit more richness than anticipated. $18.00

1995 Merlot Reserve – Port-like dusty floral bouquet. Dark, integrated, toasty flavors of twigs and a faint finish of mint. Reasonable deal if drunk immediately. (On a special sell-off; $90 a case)

2001 Rutherford Reserve Merlot – Relatively small production of only 500 cases. 99% Merlot, 1% Cabernet. Classic Rutherford dust aromas that were slightly sweet with a touch of green pepper. Intense nose that continued into the mouth entry with dark red fruit and a long, balanced finish. $30.00

2001 St. Helena Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot. Almost 1,000 cases. Rich dark red wine displaying dark spice and plum in the nose. Easy, smooth mouth entry of rich blackberry and refined spices in the complex finish. 13.8% alcohol! $45.00

2001 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – 99% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Merlot. Almost 1,000 cases. Hugh, spicy aromas that were surprisingly Syrah-like in blackness; dark fruit, blackberry liqueuer, and dark florals. Sweet entry exudes some dusty floral qualities. The wine smelled older and more developed than it tasted. Easy to drink now, but with a developed integration and supple mouthfeel that will only improve with age. $45.00

2000 Generations Cabernet Sauvignon – Dark spicy pepper and Moroccan spices with a touch of earth in its bouquet. Rich, dark flavors with some green bell pepper and mostly complex, dark currant, berry, and tobacco flavors. $65.00

Raymond Vineyard & Cellar ~ 849 Zinfandel Lane ~ St. Helena ~ CA ~ 94574 ~ 800-525-2659

Rombauer – 151

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

Rombauer_signI have known of Rombauer’s reputation for a while. They are one of the stalwart well-loved Chardonnays that has become so popular, it makes up over 60% of their 60,000-case production. That is quite substantial for any winery and if you are going to stake your reputation on one wine, it had best be good. My friend, Lisa, was driving and she was the one who told me about their Chardonnay, but it was the salesman at the counter who confirmed its popularity with the statistics.

Rombauer_entranceRombauer_cowThe buildings at Rombauer are incredibly well-hidden amongst the trees, atop a small hill which lies just west off the Silverado Trail. In fact, their road-side sign is a bit small and it is quite easy to whiz right past them on the trail. As you drive up the uphill, windy road, a patriotic cow is visible — seemingly exiting from the heavy brush on its way to the tasting room.

Rombauer_tasting_roomGreg Graham has been the winemaker at Rombauer for over twenty years – longevity of this sort is almost unheard of in the Napa Valley. The tasting room is small a bedecked with a wide variety of aeronautic paraphernalia and family remembrances. One other note – this is one of those rare, north of St. Helena wineries with picnic tables for guests who want to stay and relax for a while.

Joy_of_cookingI had not put two-and-two together before my visit, but it was Lisa who told me that the Rombauer name was indeed the Rombauer who wrote The Joy of Cooking. Koerner and John started the winery and great-aunt Irma wrote the cookbook. I guess the foodie in me was a bit surprised that despite a handful of the books for sale in the hospitality room, this framed picture was the extent of their affiliation with the classic tome.

2002 Merlot – Cherry and dark current with a layer of vanilla spice shows in the nose. Slightly hot entry smooths out to display a lingering vanilla finish. $28.75

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon – 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. Core of blueberry with a whisper of green olive and dried herbs. Dry entry bursts with fruit and finishes with supple spice. $36.75

2002 Napa Zinfandel – Decidedly fruity red in aroma and initial taste. The fruit bomb explodes into spice showing cinnamon and pepper. Sweet mid-palate with a long, lingering fruity finish. $25.00

2004 Chardonnay – Another winery that pours Chardonnay at the end. I wonder if it is a tactical plan to make the palate heightened with the tannins but then introduce a wine which will of course taste more distinct? At a 100% malo, the bouquet showed both dark tropical fruit as well as white stonefruit. The mouth entry was sweet (no surprise!) with a tangy mid-section and a touch of cream on the finish. I was fascinated by the customer or two who walked in to buy a Chardonnay and never realized that Rombauer made other wines… $29.75

Rombauer Vineyards ~ 3522 Silverado Trail ~ St. Helena ~ CA ~ 94574 ~ 707-963-5170

Frank Family Vineyards – 147

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Ff_signI’ve had a lot of friends asking me to head to Frank Family Vineyards for some time. One reason is that I am especially drawn to historical locations. In this case, while the Frank family themselves have only been in the wine industry since the early 1990s, the location and some of the remaining buildings date back to the early 1880s.


It is the front building that has been ‘plaqued’ as an historic landmark, having once been the Larkmead Winery (which now has me on an investigative journey to go and visit the new home of Larkmead as it seems the patriarch sold this estate in the 1950s).

Ff_tasting_bldgDuring my visit, the historical building in the front was closed down. I was there on a weekend so I can only assume the building is used for winemaking in some fashion, but I did not get to peer inside and who knows – maybe it is just there for storage these days… There is a smaller, house-like structure behind the stone edifice which now acts as the hospitality suite and tasting room.

Ff_back_tasting_roomThe entrance to the tasting is somewhat of an anteroom that acts as the location of the cash register as well as where some bubbly is tasted first. After a bit of sparkling, you wander through a hallway of some several thousand photographs of friends and family. The second tasting room lies in the back of the house and not only contains memorabilia of Rich Frank’s former life as chairman of Walt Disney’s musical division (this means there are gold records on the wall). The grounds are lovely to walk around and some picnic tables sitting behind the back building seem inviting as they were already half full.

2000 Champagne Reserve – Yep, they call it Champagne and not "sparkling wine." Four months on French oak and five years on yeast, finished with Remi cognac (that would actually be Carneros-based RMS Alembic that went out of business several years ago and sold off barrels of their product). Very smooth and nice with flavors of apple and hazelnut. Decent combination of sweetness and yeast. $55.00

NV Rouge – 100% Pinot Noir. Light almondine garnet colored. Slightly fishy aroma with bright cranberry flavors and a metallic finish. $27.75

2004 Chardonnay – They call it liquid creme brulee in a glass. At a 100% malo having spent two months in French oak, this wine has pretty thick banana aromas with some caramel and toffee. Viscous and vanilla-flavored, the wine was still tight and possibly suffering from bottle shock. $32.50

2003 Zinfandel – From Browns Valley. They call this the Velvet Hammer. (Seems they name all their wine). At 16% alcohol, this is a pretty heady wine showing strong black plum and blackberry aromas with a back-nose of chocolate. The mouth entry was relatively soft but explodes with black licorice. Spice and chocolate present themselves before the dark plummy finish. $34.95

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon – An initial tease of green bell pepper subsided with a swirl and produced more pronounced mushroom and dark fruit. Distinct cedar taste on first taste which evolved to produce dusty cocoa and a hint of eucalyptus. The tannins were balanced and even and the core finish was meaty blackberry. $39.75

2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – From Rutherford. Dark, inky purple wine that seemed mostly comprised of chocolate. Huge, brawny tannins brightened to chewy cranberry flavors. Needs time. $65.00

Frank Family Vineyards ~ 1091 Larkmead Lane ~ Calistoga ~ CA ~ 94515 ~ 800-574-9463