Day One-February 21st.

Escaping Wisconsin looked to be a trick after getting hit on Sunday night with a snow storm turned rain storm turned ice storm back to snow again. Mother Nature is not confused, she’s just angry.

Arriving in San Francisco to cloudy skies and 52 degrees I was pleased to be away from snow. Then I arrive in Napa to see snow on Mt. St. Helena. Of course, why not?

After checking in I head up to St. Helena for my interview with Land & Reed co owner John Skupny.

John’s office sits just a block away from the main drag in St. Helena. A cozy place with pics of John standing with Robert Mondavi among other wine greats. John also has an amazing collection of vintage wine labels including Inglenook from the John Daniel Jr. era.

We talked while sipping Pinot Noir from both the Central Coast as well as Napa Valley. Two bottles and a few hours later, the evening was complete. Likely, never a better first day!

Dinner at the Rutherford Grill and headed off to ready for a day in Healdsburg tomorrow.

Day Two-February 22nd

Taking the ‘scenic’ route to Sonoma I headed up-valley on 128 to Healdsburg to meet with Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves Winemaker Joe Healy. Still amazing to see snow on Mt. St. Helena. I was told the roads up topside were closed due to a heavy fall.

Joe Healy’s laid back nature and direct answers made for an easy interview. This being his 10th year with Bella he has seen an amazing amount of change from what was originally started by Scott and Lynn Adams.

After the interview, we headed further into the caves to taste the Zin. Being their focus, the Zinfandel is very good and stands on its own. These caves sit just below a vineyard which gives you more of an ‘earthy’ experience.

Joe also has his very own effort making Pinot Noir called Buena Vita. Of course, a winemaker making wine.

My next stop was second (belated) visit with Denise Gill, General Manager of Hop Kiln in Healdsburg. This time I met HK Winemaker Chuck Mansfield. Chuck is a young winemaker who has managed to carve out an excellent reputation for making Pinot Noir.

Hop Kiln has completely remodeled their tasting room and the improvement makes for better access to the bar plus more room in general to enjoy the rural atmosphere. I’ve always appreciated the space since it comes across more earthy and connected with the concept of wine being an agricultural product.

After a tour of the property courtesy of Chuck I headed into the town of Healdsburg for my final stop of the day….but before that, lunch at John Stewart’s Bovolo. Excellent food with a simple atmosphere.

Just around the corner from the square in Healdsburg is the new and yet unnamed tasting room of Alan Baker and Serena Laurie of Cartograph Wines. The couple signed the lease on this brand new shared space shortly before I arrived for the interview (two other wine labels will join them). With that, Cartograph officially has a home base.

The couple specializes in Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer with Serena putting time into her own Cabernet Sauvignon called “Seeds”.

Having met at Crush Pad, they combined their energies to create a label that reflects location specific to terroir.

I closed out the day back in Napa by dining at a ‘locals’ stop called La Strada, featuring simple Italian food visited by few tourists.

DAY THREE-February 23rd:

I originally met Janet Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards back in 2008 at Auction Napa Valley when she was chair of the event. Shortly after I met Janet’s daughter, Hailey and saw the third generation taking the wine into the future.

I met up with Hailey at the winery to do the interview for the first of the day. I had never visited the Trefethen Winery and it was well worth seeing. Deep history and a beautiful space makes it a must for Napa History.

Hailey carries the same exceptional hospitality that is common to the Napa Valley. She spoke as we were friends for many years. I have to say getting to know the new generation in wine country is like a window to the future.

Off to a quick lunch at my favorite, Mustards…..sitting at the bar with a friendly and conversational bartender I was joined by a crowd within a few minutes. The usual pulled pork did the trick and I was out on the road again.

My next scheduled interview wasn’t until 3pm so I had the chance to check out a few wineries that have been on my list for some time. Some time ago, Charly at Alpha Omega has suggested that I stop at Robert Biale Vineyards. I had sampled their Zinfandel during dinner once before and it was exceptional. As Biale is by appointment only, the kindly phone voice managed to sneak me in on the tails of another small group tasting. Very good Petite Syarh, Syrah and Zinfandel made it worth the trip. I purchased a bottle of ‘Life Father Like Son’ and headed out to another winery of interest.

Robert Sinskey makes wine that I have enjoyed on more than one occasion but I had never visited their tasting room.

I learned that there was no point in trying that again.

This was a sort of very typical ‘mass tasting’ type of winery so the bar was somewhat crowded but not overly busy.

I bellied up to an area that had some snacks set up but was unattended. To make a long story short a group was just getting ready to taste so I was directed, without the lease bit of hospitality, to find another place at the bar.

I was not welcomed.

I was not made to feel welcome.

I tried to get a tasting room person’s attention.

I didn’t succeed.

I won’t go back.

From there I headed to another winery I’ve wanted to check out for quite some time. The William Harrison winery looked somewhat like an old west California type building with character written all over it.

A big and friendly dog waited in the parking lot….and on the porch, a friendly guy looked on, then headed back into the tasting room.

The ‘guy’ was winemaker Bruce Bradley who was filling in at the bar. I found Bruce to be warm and engaging. In fact I found him to be an excellent storyteller filling me in on the history of William Harrison which gave away his love of the place.

After tasting very good Cabs and a few more stories, I headed to St. Helena to meet with Sharon Harris of Wine Entre Femme (and also of RareCat and Common Dog wines).

Meander’s Amy Aiken had given me background on Wine Entre Femme and via email had introduced me to Sharon. This woman’s wine group consists of some of Napa’s brightest female winemakers joining with an international group to learn, share ideas and promote women talent in the wine business.

Sharon’s St. Helena home was fantastic and fully equipped with two silly and friendly dogs. Big barks with wagging tails. My purpose of this interview was to talk about the WEF, but she gave me a second interview talking about about her wine projects including RareCat and CommonDog.

We interviewed outside by the pool until it was simply too chilly to continue…..then we headed indoors where I met Amici Wine owners Bob Shepard Sharon’s husband John Harris.

Sharon is smart with both the American and European point of view on wine. She makes some very good wines and lives life with the passion common to people in the industry.

I made it back to my hotel to ready for a dinner gathering of friendly wine folks at the home of Tiera Roja owner Linda Neal.

Mouth watering leg of lamb, potatoes, beet salad, Waldorf salad and somewhere around 9 wines such as Tierra Roja, Volker Eisele, Robert Biale, Cade, Plumpjack and others including a ’79 William Hill.

An evening to remember.

DAY FOUR-February 24th:

Starting the day early by meeting Patz & Hall co owner Heather Patz at their tasting salon in the southern end of Napa Valley. This is the first tasting room that we’ve visited that is located in an industrial park.

They pull it off beautifully. The space is elegantly decorated and very comfy to the point of feeling like your very own living room.

From there we head up-vally to the amazing and slightly crazy Quixote winery in the Stag’s Leap District.

This winery was designed by the famous Austrian painter and architect Hundertwasser. No straight lines, every window different, wavy floors and crazy colors reflect the design that is a must see. During the tour you also see the extensive collection of artwork assembled by owner Carl Doumani. The wine is worth the trip featuring Syrah and Petite Syrah among others.

By now the rain was coming down heavy just another reason to stop for another tasting. This time it was Hartwell wines also located in the Stag’s Leap District.

We tasted five wines including two Sauvignon Blanc and three Cabernet. The winemaker Benoit Touquette knows his stuff and has created an excellent collection of wines to offer. This is another must see for any Napa visitor.

After a quick fast food lunch we headed off to the many events held by wineries around the valley to celebrate Premiere. Sadly we missed the Yountville tasting as I had entered it in my calendar at the wrong date.

We started at the Porter Family Caves where the Coombsville event was held.

Coombsville is an area directly east of the city of Napa has is deep in history. The area is hillier that it looks and has several hidden gem wineries. We even met a Milwaukee transplant who is now working with the Acien Wines. Curtis Strohl had worked in Milwaukee at a simple pizza place that that was well known for just about the best selection in the city.

Next we headed to St. Helena and the Farmstead Restaurant property for the NG (Next Generation) event where we crowded into a tent as the rain came down outside. Here, met up with Elizabeth Marson of Marston Family Vineyard and once again it was like catching up with an old friend.

And speaking of old friends, we ran into Dawn Dooley who was one of our very first interviews for LBTV and Mini Gatens who also helped us out in the beginning. We also saw Ray Signorello (SP) of Signorello Family Vineyards and Brette Bartolucci of Madonna wines plus made many new contacts with young winemakers.

Our final event for the evening was at Ma(i)sonary in Yountville. This was an overcrowded and somewhat uncomfortable gathering which we only stayed at for a short period of time as there was no where to relax let along set your glass.

Since we were in Yountville, we dined at Hurley’s Bar & Grill just down the street. We sat at the bar and were entertained by a very good bartender. Sadly the food was below par and that was a surprise considering we were in Yountville.

Rest for tomorrow.

DAY FIVE-February 24th:

Tasting wine at 9:30 in the morning….why not? We did.

Friday started with the Perspective Tasting at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) Rudd Center with 12 Cabernet Sauvignon with 3 vintages and 8 Pinot Noir also with 3 vintages. In the efforts to save my palate (last year I hit the wall by 3pm) I decided to taste only the Cabs and pass on the Pinot.

This is a perfect experience for anyone wanting to learn not only about wine but a bit about yourself and your palate. Sipping and spitting is a must to keep your wits about you but to really create a fair playing field and to spend time thinking about exactly what your tasting.

Afterward we met up with Amy Aiken of Meander Wine to grab lunch at Market in downtown St. Helena. An excellent meal for all and believe it or not, the absence of filled wine glasses on the table.

As part of Premiere Napa Valley several wineries sponsor events at wineries, tasting rooms and private spaces around the valley. As media we are invited to many of these events. The trick is to schedule the driving time around the scattered times of each event. The logistics can be a wee bit confusing and it’s important to remember that Napa’s finest are keeping an eye out for drunk driving.

We started with the Spring Mountain tasting at Spring Mountain Winery.

Next was a reception at Shafer Vineyards tasting room where they poured the many Shafer selections including older vintages of Hillside Select. Excellent!

Then we headed off to St. Helena Vintners, which was held at Charles Krug. Here we had a chance to meet up with Mimi Gatens again as well as Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr.

Off to the Oakville Vintners tasting in the caves of Far Niente. Tierra Roja, Opus One, Bond, Harlan, Groth were just some among the many amazing Oakville wines there to taste.

Back up valley to the Duckhorn reception to meet up with Migration winemaker Neal Bernardi and his cohorts David Marchesi of Paraduxx and Bill Nancarrow of Duckhorn. We also were introduced to Golden Eye winemaker Zach Rasmuson. The food was fantastic and the Dixieland band made the evening.

Our final visit was to the ‘Stag’s Leap Lounge’ at the Pine Ridge caves. Excellent décor and great wines along with a DJ in the caves made for a very good end to the long day.

DAY SIX, February 25th: Premiere Napa Valley.

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystoke hosted the barrel tasting and auction. We were greeted by Doug Shafer and many other association members. A lite breakfast, juices and coffee awaited us before the start of the day.

The best way to understand this event is to listen to the podcast. We met up with many old friends and made several new connections to winemakers we have never met but were aware of.

The barrel tastings were exceptional and even though it was very busy there was no problem negotiating the throng.

The CIA made a spectacular lunch for the attendees while bottle after bottle of wine was poured to pair with the food.

The auction itself started in the early afternoon and was standing room only.

Finances may be tight in our current world but the bidders showed a generosity not found in many places these days.

We joined our friends at Alpha Omega for the after party and dined on gourmet pizza with nothing less than the great wines made by Jean Hoefliger and AO.

For me I had to leave just after 7 to catch the red eye home.

A long week with many miles of travel, wine, fun, food and friends.

A splendid time, indeed.

rf 3/11

Part One (online March 10th):

1-Shirley Roy & Aaron Bounchristiani/Bounchristiani Wine
2-Jean Hoefliger/Alpha Omega
3-Janet Trefethen & Zeke Neeley/Trefethen Family Vineyards
4-Sam Baxter/Terra Valentine
5-Bruce Cakebread/Cakebread Cellars
6-Elliot Stern/Oakville East Exposure
7-Janet Myers/Mt. Veeder Winery
8-Manuel Frias/ Frias Family Vineyard
9-Alex Eisele/Volker Eisele Family Estate
10-Taylor & Susan Bartolucci/Madonna Estatew
11-John Harris & Joel Aiken/Amici Wine
12-Debi Cali/Baldacci Wines
13-Fred Schweiger/Schweiger Family Vineyards
14-Andy Schweiger/Schweiger Family Vineyards
15-Diana Schweiger/Schweiger Family Vineyards
16-Curtis Strohl/Ancien Wines
17-Ken Bernards/Ancien Wines

Part Two (online March 20th):

1-Scott Shirley/The Hess Collection
2-Chelsea Bellows/Alpha Omega
3-Bill Hill/Terta Wine
4-Robin Lail/Lail Vineyards
5-Doug Boeschen/BoeschenVineyards
6-Linda Neal/Tierra Roja
7-Katherine DeSante/Tierra Roja
8-Charles Sawyer/Sawyer Vineyards
9-David Marchesi/Paraduxx
10-Julie Johnson/Tres Saboris
11-Bridgett Raymond/Courtesan wines & Brigitte Wine
12-Benoit Touquette/Hartwell Wine & Jean Hoefliger/Alpha Omega.
13-Eric Rothchild/Tayson Pierce Estate
14-Marbue Marke/Caldwell Wine.

Written by Ray Fister

    1 Comment

  1. Andy Demsky March 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Ray – Thanks for taking the time to visit. Amazing that you made it as quickly as you did to Shafer from Spring Mnt. You must have an iron constitution to take all those curves and show up at our place not only NOT looking green but ready to samples some wines. Sounds like a great trip!

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