Drink wines today. Visit wineries later.
As a long-time wine industry professional, I love taking the time to visit wineries. There are few places I enjoy visiting more than the vineyards in wine country. I bask in the natural beauty of the land and the symmetry of the vineyards. The passion of the people who tend the vines is infectious. Combined with how they work the cellars to craft the final product creates an unforgettable, inspiring experience.
I have had the good fortune of visiting California twice this year. I had some truly fantastic experiences when I visited the wineries. Of course, like many industries, the wine world has been challenged during 2020. The impact of the pandemic and the wildfires has been difficult, to say the least.
Thanks to the resiliency of the people in the industry and robust online sales, most are doing OK. The following smaller wineries are notable not just for their wines, but because of the people, their stories, and their history. Following my recent visits, I encourage you to learn about them online and eventually visit the wineries in person.
Saintsbury, Napa Carneros, California
This winery (www.saintsbury.com) is a hidden gem in the Napa Carneros region. Unlike some of the larger, more grandiose estates in Napa, Saintsbury has more of a rustic, inviting atmosphere. The hosts, Terry Peterson, Jacob Harris, and Buster the Dalmatian could not have been more welcoming.
Jacob spent a lot of time with us discussing the company culture and its winemaking philosophy. It is focused on site-specific Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Both come from their estate fruit as well as select, premium vineyards from Napa and Sonoma. He was also kind enough to share some of the very small production unique offerings from the lesser-known Chenin Blanc and St. Laurent grape varieties. One of the standouts to me was the San Giacomo Vineyard Clone 809 Chardonnay. Clone 809 is the specific Chardonnay vine type planted here, and the wine defines elegance. Bright, clean flavors of green pear, lemon zest with hints of peach, and mineral notes with lively acidity. It’s lean, crisp, and delicious.
Trefethen, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
I discovered this iconic property (www.trefethen.com) with a fellow industry professional back in January before the pandemic. As a result, we were able to go inside. It’s located in the Oak Knoll District, not far from downtown Napa. The estate has an amazing history that goes back into the 1800s and a beautiful tasting room. The winery staff was incredibly knowledgeable about all of it, as well as the wines.
During our conversation, they learned that my companion and I were also in the industry. The next thing we knew we were being whisked around the property in a golf cart. We learned about how the soil drained differently on different parts of the estate. The guide explained how this meant they had to use different trellis systems and prune the vines differently to produce the highest quality fruit. The tour was an absolute treat!
Speaking of treats, Trefethen’s 2016 OKD-Three red blend is an amazing wine. It is a blend of Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. The offering is rich and powerful yet still elegant, with dark berry and plum notes and a firm tannin structure. Very well balanced between big and beautiful, it just calls for roast duck. Yes, I will have seconds!
Peju Winery, Rutherford, California
Another stunning family-owned property is Peju Winery (www.peju.com). These vineyards are in the town of Rutherford, California. The tower and tasting room are surrounded by meticulously tended flower and sculpture gardens as well as rows of vines.
Our visit took place at a slower time in the winery production cycle. We had the good fortune to spend time with winemaker Sara Fowler and three of the four members of the Peju family. It was a lot of fun. While they are very serious about crafting their wines, they are all very approachable people. The conversation was educational and not at all intimidating.
Peju produces several interesting and creative wines, but the rock star for me was the Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas of red fruits and vanilla followed by bright cherry, red plum, and cocoa powder flavors with a hint of the signature “Rutherford Dust” adds an element of interest. Big and yet approachable, an absolute delight with grilled New York strip.
Schweiger Vineyards & Winery, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Here, (www.schweigervineyards.com) I fell in love with Napa’s Spring Mountain District and the wines that come from there. Schweiger Vineyards is perched on the top of Spring Mountain, 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor. The views are beyond stunning. And the unique climate from the exposure to sunlight and the cooling, gentle Pacific breezes gives winemaker Andy Schweiger some truly amazing fruit to craft his wines.
Andy and his father Fred were very generous with their time. They purchased the estate some five decades ago. As a result, we learned a great deal about the history of the winery and Andy’s winemaking approach.
The wines were outstanding, they really did have a sense of place that made them special. The wine I took home was the Cabernet Franc. Elegant floral and plum aromas with cherry, red plum flavors mingled with herbal and baking spice notes. A beautiful, medium-bodied wine that I am going to cellar for a bit and then will be enjoying with grilled salmon.
Many more options for wines and wineries
These are just a few of the highlights of all to be found in the California Napa Valley wine country. I focused on some of the smaller, family-owned wineries. There are many more options. As soon as everyone feels safe to travel, I strongly recommend visiting; you will not regret it. In the meantime, learn more about these properties and their wines on their websites, and take advantage of the option to order the wines online.
They often do virtual tours and tastings through their social media accounts as well, so that is another great way to connect and learn about these wonderful people and places as we wait until it’s safe to travel there.
Tom Novelline, has worked in the wine industry for 19 years. He is the New England Division Sales Manager for Delicato Family Wines (www.delicato.com) in Napa, CA. A Certified Specialist of Wine from the Society of Wine Educators, he achieved the Level 3 Advanced award from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Tom has passed wine classes from the Court of Master Sommeliers as well as UC-Davis extension school.