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Visiting Clif Family Winery in the Heart of Napa Valley

Visiting Clif Family Winery in the Heart of Napa Valley

Most every moment I spend in wine regions I’m on the hunt. Of course I’m looking for excellent wine, but when I’m on the ground somewhere I’m searching for brilliant tasting experiences too. They come in every shape and size, offering everything from just wine, to light pairings, all the way to full on meals accompanying wines. I just spent 10 days split between Napa Valley and Sonoma County; and on this trip alone had a huge variety of experiences. Many of them were quite good and well worth mentioning. One, however, stood above the pack. To say my tasting at Clif Family Winery was a homerun would be to sell the experience short. The tasting at Clif Family Winery is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber tasting, easily in the top five tasting experiences available in Napa Valley.

The folks at Clif Family are the same who started Clif Bar. Their winery tasting room, “Velo Vino,” sits right on highway 29 in St. Helena. From this room they offer a handful of wide-ranging tasting experiences that are closely tied to products that come off of their nearby farm. Clif Family Winery is a boutique operation making less than 5,000 cases of wine in total. Their involvement in the community with a CSA program, cycling tours, and the like only add to their broad appeal for the consciously minded among us. As for the wine tastings, they offer a quartet of options that range in scope and are priced from $15 to $50. I took part in the Rifugio tasting, which was simply marvelous. Each wine I tasted was expertly paired with small bites. Here’s the rundown of the tasting.

Clif Family Winery 2012 Mendocino Riesling

The fruit for this wine came from the Potter Valley section of the appellation. 200 cases of this entirely varietal wine were produced and it sells for $22. The nose of this Riesling has floral notes highlighted by bits of spice. Asian pear highlights a light and lovely palate. White Pepper and gingerbread spices are part of the memorable finish. This was paired with a Mt. Tam cheese and Meyer Lemon Marmalade. The match was sublime and just melted in my mouth. A savory cookie was also available as a second and quite different pairing option which also worked nicely.

Clif Family Winery 2012 Oak Knoll Chardonnay

This Napa Valley wines stands as Clif Family’s first-ever release of chardonnay. It was aged for nine months in an even split of new and used oak. 350 cases were produced and it sells for $22. Bits of tropical fruit and Madagascar vanilla bean light up the nose of this Chardonnay. The palate is loaded with apple, pear and hints of peach. There is a purity of expression that marks all these flavors and leads to a clean, crisp and mineral-laden finish. This chardonnay was matched up with Vella Dry Jack Cheese and apple butter. If you have ever liked (or wanted) to melt cheese on your apple pie, this combo brought that to mind most delightfully.

Clif Family Winery 2011 Mendocino Grenache

In addition to grenache (85%), this wine has some zinfandel (15%) blended in. It was aged in neutral oak for 16 months. 250 cases were produced and it sells for $35. Wild strawberry aromas lead an expressive nose. Purple and red fruit flavors mark the agile but full flavored palate along with a core of spices. Black teas and savory herbs are present on the long and persistent finish. There were two pairing options for the grenache. One was a Carmody, Bellwether Farms cheese and pluot preserve. It worked quite well. However, the combination of bread dipped in olive oil and then savory coconut dukkah was a tasty revelation that I repeated numerous times.

Clif Family Winery 2010 Kit’s Killer Cab, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon

This selection marks the first time they’ve made wine from their estate property. In addition to cabernet sauvignon (90%), some merlot (10%) was blended in. It was aged for 22 months in 85% new French oak. 500 cases were produced and it sells for $50. Cherry aromas explode from the nose of this Mountain cabernet. The palate is layered, intense and proportionate in nature with red berry fruit flavors and spices galore. Graphite, herbs and earth lead a long, dry finish. This is a well-structured cab produced with Old World intent. It’s delicious now but it’ll age well for a decade. It was paired with Golden Valley Delight cheese as well as smoked paprika almonds. Both worked nicely.

Clif Family Winery 2010 Napa Valley Zinfandel

This wine is made up entirely of zin. It was aged for 16 months in French oak. 450 cases were produced and it sells for $32. The nose shows of zippy berry fruit aromas such as red raspberry and strawberry. Jam flavors line the palate along with black pepper and vanilla bean. Those elements all continue on the proportionate finish. This is a classic Zinfandel that never comes close to going over the top. It was paired with blue cheese and plum preserves as well as a savory pistachio cookie. Both worked, but the cheese and preserves combo was my pick of the two.

After all the wine and food pairing I was offered, my choice of coffee which was accompanied by homemade biscotti and a couple of different chocolate treats. It was a fine way to cap off a memorable tasting. This option has a price of $50 and is available by prior reservation. Check their website for further details.

It’s hard to come close to estimating how many tasting rooms I’ve been in over the years, but it’s in the thousands to be sure. One thing I am quite certain about, Clif Family Winery offers warmth, hospitality, excellent, fairly-priced wines, and unique pairing experiences. What that all adds up to is one of the very best tasting experiences in Napa Valley. Next time you find your way to Napa, Clif Family Winery should be on your very short list of must-visit producers. It would be impossible for me to recommend them strongly enough. Visit them first, thank me later. I look forward to revisiting them myself on my very next trip to Napa!

The Iconic Opus One, a must-visit winery in the heart of Napa Valley

“Opus” is a Latin word meaning an artistic composition by a well-established artist. If the taste of a Napa Valley wine could be compared to the sound of a musical masterpiece, that wine would be Opus One. But it hasn’t always been called Opus One.

Not too long ago, California wines like the rest of the country were much lower in quality. Mostly made for large consumption, jug wines and cheap labels plagued the land. Along came Robert Mondavi, many thought he was out of his mind when he attempted to bring higher quality into California wines several decades ago. For lack of a better word, Mr. Mondavi successfully revolutionized the California wine landscape, elevating it to world-class status in just a few decades.

On the other side of the globe, requiring little introduction, major wine region of Bordeaux, France has always been known for its exquisite quality wine, claiming among the most expensive in the world. The district of Medoc is home to a powerhouse of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The person in charge of its operation started his wine career at the tender age of 20, Mr. Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

Opus one saw its first harvest in 1979, a collaboration of passion between Mr. Mondavi from Napa Valley and Mr. Baron Philippe from Medoc (Bordeaux France) that continues to thrive decades after. In the early years, it was called NapaMedoc -signifying the union of two renowned wine regions the name was later changed to Opus One in 1982.

-view from the 2nd floor terrace, looking out to the entrance-

St. Helena Highway, also known as Highway 29, glides through this world famous wine region one district at a time. In Oakville, Opus One Winery lies in the heart of Napa Valley. It is just a stone-throw away from Robert Mondavi Winery other than grape vines and olives branches on the estate, Opus One looks and feels much more like a Museum than a winery.

Perfectly groomed olive trees line both sides of the entrance driveway behind them lie impeccable rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape that over the years has been synonymous with Napa Valley. Straight as an arrow, this entrance driveway spears directly into the Winery and its tasting room, which can be seen at the distance. Prestige, sophistication, or perhaps both, there’s something about it that gets your attention followed by a moment of silence which prolongs this antagonizing anticipation. There is something magical waiting in the glass right there at the end of this endless driveway.

(tasting of current 2010 vintage on 2nd floor terrace)

The winery’s courtyard offers plenty of space for tasting and wandering around, but the place to be is up on its 2nd floor terrace. Its location opens to a 360 degree view of Napa Valley right from the heart of it all -Yountville to the left, Rutherford to the right and staring up through the front entrance finds Mount Veeder. Nothing beats a nice summer breeze whispering a spell ever so gently in your ears, gradually you’ll find yourself questioning reality. Then a sip of Opus One seals the deal. This is day dreaming at its best.

Sparing no expenses, the two partners wanted to make the very best Bordeaux Blend that Napa Valley has to offer. Opus One is made following the old world tradition with modern technology. There are more than 400 wineries in Napa Valley, each offers an array of wines to choose from, many boast over a dozen different wines. This practice is unheard of in Bordeaux, France, where Mr. Baron Philippe had his winery. In Bordeaux, a small chateau usually produces two wines, one with the highest quality grapes and a second tier wine with less desirable crops and that is exactly what you’ll get at Opus One.

The lesser known Opus One wine is Overture, it has the same Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdo, Cabernet France and Malbec. Overture in a non-vintage wine, or no-year, which means grapes used in the making of this wine could come from different years. Newly fermented wine may be blended with previous vintages for a more desirable outcome. Although harvested crops are good, they just didn’t meet the strict standard for Opus One, the winery save them to make Overture, which costs less than half the price of Opus One -although it is still very enjoyable.

Only the highest quality grapes make their way into the bottle of Opus One. A recent taste of the 2010 vintage was memorizing. It showcased vibrant aromas of intense ripe fruit, blackberry, cassis, toasted almond, laced with herbal notes of eucalyptus and a hint of dill. The nose on this wine promised a taste out of this world. On the palate, it never disappoints: silky tannins give way to this gracefully structured wine luscious dark fruit in the mouth followed by intriguing bouquet of herbs, cedar and mocha. Each taste seems to get better and more complex, lingering finish of sweet oak and toffee reminisces the long endless entrance driveway. Coincidence? probably not! At $40 per taste, it isn’t cheap, but more than just a drink, Opus One is an experience, an escape, it is music in a glass as each note has you craving for more.

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Turnbull Rising From The Heart Of Napa Valley

Laying low on Highway 29 in Oakville is a tough thing to do. It’s the heart of the glitz. It’s tourist central. It’s Robert Mondavi and Opus One. But Turnbull Wine Cellars has managed to keep a somewhat under-the-radar profile and down-to-earth demeanor in the face of it all. The question is, can they continue to do so now that the 100-point scores have started rolling in and the golden bull — the iconic image on their new labels — has been let loose?

Turnbull, like yours truly, started its journey in 1979. While I was busy being born Turnbull’s founders were producing their first vintage of estate grown Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Could you say that two great things were created that year? Why yes, I think you could.

I kid, of course. But the quality of Turnbull’s wine is no joke.

When I recently tried their 99-point Robert Parker rated 2013 Fortuna Cabernet at a club member appreciation event in Boston (I am not a member but they were kind enough to invite me anyway) I was taken—captivated by the bull, you could say. The structure. The palatal onslaught of graphite and black fruit and violet and down right sexiness.

Did I mention I’m not a big Napa Cab guy?

Throw me a meaty Northern Rhone Syrah or a cool climate Pinot… that’s my jam. But sometimes the power and sheer intensity of an impeccably crafted Napa Cabernet can really take your mouth for a top-rolled-down California joyride.

Turnbull’s 2013 Fortuna Cabernet Sauvignon is that wine. It’s hard not to love everything about it.

Of course, making high-end, impeccably crafted Napa Cabernet is kind of Turnbull’s thing. That’s been their mission since inception. Zoe Johns, President of Turnbull, told me that has been especially true since her step-father, Patrick O’Dell, bought Johnston-Turnbull winery in 1992. So, after 38 years with a focused mission and an independent spirit (that allows them to focus on spare-no-expense quality), is it really all that surprising that Turnbull is putting out some of the best Cabernet in Napa Valley?

Like many wineries in Napa who have been around for a few decades or more, Turnbull’s style of wine has evolved over the years. The wines Turnbull makes today are a lot different than the wines Zoe’s step-father was making when he purchased the winery 25 years ago. They’ve evolved to take on a much more vineyard- and terroir-driven approach.

As Zoe told me when I connected with her recently, “The 1990’s eventually woke us [the collective wineries of Napa Valley] up to the importance of farming, and how effectively working with our terroir affects the quality of our wines. Once we gave more thought to the actual farming of the vines — determining what grows best in our terroir, paying special attention to the pruning, suckering, and cover crop efforts during the dormant and growing season — the resulting wines were far better, and aged more beautifully.”

This shift back to the “earth” affected wineries throughout Napa, but for those that were working with the best vineyards, that shift elevated the quality of the wines significantly. And if there is one thing that Turnbull has, it’s great vineyards four to be exact—three in Oakville and one further north in Calistoga.

Turnbull’s home vineyard and winery is off of Highway 29 in the heart of Oakville, just a stones throw from the famed To Kalon vineyard. Their two other Oakville vineyards (Leopoldina and my new crush, Fortuna) are just to the east on the crest of the Oakville Bench. These two vineyards essentially sandwich Screaming Eagle. Not a bad few parcels of land.

Despite the impeccable quality of wines and the desirable vineyard sites, however, it took one more evolution to get Turnbull to where it is today. That came about when Zoe took over the family business four years ago and gave the wines a fresh new look. That’s when the golden bull emerged and a great winery stepped into icon status.

“We were just about to release our 2012 vintage wines, and the storied ‘13’s were just being harvested,” Zoe mentioned about the fortuitous timing in which the new labels were rolled out. “I think the combination of elevating the branding to finally match up to the exceptional wines we’ve been making and the timing of that rebranding has absolutely been a factor in the increased recognition and visitation we’ve garnered over the past few years.”

Recognition, I’d suggest, that’s been a long-time coming.

A few weeks after the Boston Turnbull event, I had a chance to spend a little more time with the newly released 2015 vintage of Turnbull’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine, according to the website, is “the pinnacle of what Oakville represents and tastes like each vintage.”

It’s also a great representation of what this winery is all about.

Turnbull’s Reserve Cabernet is a great showcase of intensity and precision. The wine shows a collective voice of the winery’s estate vineyards and presents a knockout perspective of the 2015 vintage in Oakville–a vintage that’s proving to be stellar. The wine’s got serious structure, layered with concentrated dark fruit, bold tannins, herbaceous undertones, cedar and sweet spice. It overtakes your mouth like a giant bear hug and grips you for an incredibly long finish that goes on forever.

And now, with that golden bull shining bright on the center of its label, carrying with it the mark of recent 100-point scores, I have to wonder if Turnbull will be able to remain that “under-the-radar” winery on Highway 29. Guess we’ll have to wait and see. But, in the meantime, I’d suggest you go out and buy some of their wines.


92% Cabernet Sauvignon
6% Cabernet Franc
2% Petit Verdot

Black Berries
Black Plum
Dried Herbs

Sweet Oak Spices
Vanilla Bean
Toasted Almonds

Pairs with:
Ribeye with wild mushrooms and vegetable tarts

92% Cabernet Sauvignon
6% Cabernet Franc
2% Petit Verdot

Black Berries
Black Plum
Dried Herbs

Sweet Oak Spices
Vanilla Bean
Toasted Almonds

Pairs with:
Ribeye with wild mushrooms and vegetable tarts

Hosted by Cheryl

About Cheryl

I am a jewelry designer and artist originally from San Diego. From the beaches of San Diego to the vineyards of the Napa Valley it has been a great journey. Moving here in 1999 to start a family winery led me to the location that would eventually inspire the creative work I do. Although I am no longer am involved in the winery, I cannot think of any other place I would rather be. I love sharing with people who visit and am excited that you are interested in staying in my town of Yountville

What makes this Condo unique

I have lived in several towns in the Napa Valley St. Helena, Napa and now Yountville. Each town has its own special qualities but Yountville has become my favorite. It sits off Highway 29 which means no traffic. We are surrounded by vineyards on all sides and that will keep us small . 3200 residents and everything within walking distance. 10 minutes west and you're "downtown", 10 minutes east and you are amongst the quiet of the vineyards and hillsides, 10 minutes north and the long horn cattle greet you as you walk or bike Yount Mill Road. And, should you prefer to stay at home, the updates and amenities of this great location will make you fall in love and want to stay forever. I did!

Napa Valley’s Heart

So, where is the “Heart of the Napa Valley?” This is what a recent visitor to Wine Country Getaways inquired in an email. “I will be in San Francisco and I want to spend one day in the heart of the Napa Valley, please advise.” We try to answer all emails so I got to thinking about how I would go about telling this person where he should go in the Napa Valley. Is the heart of the Napa Valley a winery, a town, Highway 29, or half way between Napa and Calistoga? After pondering a bit I realized that to find the heart of the Napa Valley, one must “experience” the Valley rather than venture to a specific area or location. I suggested a list of places to go and things to do that would guarantee him that he had been to the “Heart” of the Napa Valley.

Visit one of the historic wineries of the Napa Valley and, if time allows, take the tour there. This will give you a feel and understanding of the early pioneer days of the Napa Valley. Some suggestions are Schramsberg, Beringer, Rubicon Estates, and Beaulieu Vineyards. Robert Mondavi undoubtedly had the greatest influence on the development of the Napa Valley and a trip to his winery is always a great experience. His memories are embedded in this winery.

Visit one of the smaller wineries that is family owned, where family members take part in the daily operation of the winery. Smith-Madrone, August Briggs, or Hendry Winery are some good ones to visit where you are likely to get attention from one of the family members.

Charlie Smith at Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain

Take a walk in the vineyards. Ask in the tasting room for permission to walk in the vineyards to get a close look at how grapes are grown. Observe the grapes, the vines, the trellis system, the irrigation, and feel the soil. Get a sense of what it must be like to work the vineyards in order to make some of the greatest wines in the world.

Stop in one of the restaurants the locals love like Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, The Rutherford Grill, or Bistro Don Giovanni. Eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table. The talk will likely be about wine.

Take a couple of the crossroads that span the valley floor between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. If you see a side road off one of these crossroads, take it and see where it leads. Take a ride up Howell Mountain or Spring Mountain to get some views of hillside vineyards and a look down to the Valley.

Take your camera and shoot away to document your day. Take photos of wine bottles, vines, signs, people, food, and whatever you see that gives a sense of the sounds and sights of the Napa Valley. Capture in your photos the “Heart” of the Napa Valley.

Heart of Napa Valley Luxury Home and Guest House - Walk to French Laundry and Countless Tasting Rooms!

Located in the highly desirable Yountville area, in the heart of Napa Valley, this luxury abode offers incredible views and location. Situated on a quarter acre, the home offers views of the vineyards on two sides of the property and impeccable privacy, while still being conveniently located near Michelin-starred restaurants, award-winning tasting rooms, world-class art, high-end boutiques, and countless pedestrian paths. This is simply one of the best locations in one of the best destinations!

This professionally decorated main home was designed for resort-style living and entertaining. Perfect for both indoor and outdoor relaxation, the home boasts indoor and outdoor living space in the great room. Take a seat on the plush couches and furnishings by the stone fireplace and flat screen TV. Enjoy views both inside and outside. Step onto the backyard patio and overlook the vineyards and mountains. Relax on the patio furniture by the outdoor fireplace, fountain or relax in the hot tub or in the private pristine swimming pool.

The gourmet chef’s kitchen boasts state-of-the-art appliances sleek marble countertops, and ample bar and dining seating. Cooks in the family will enjoy all of the space and conveniences of this modern kitchen. Eat indoors or out around the firepit with seating for 10 guests. Open the doors in the great room and enjoy the seamless flow of both dining and patio areas.

The main home features four spacious bedrooms, each with en-suite bathrooms and king or queen beds. The bathrooms are all filled with the most modern appliances, spacious showers, chic countertops, and views of the valley. The guest home features one bedroom and bathroom with its own kitchen and living room.

There are countless outdoor activities in the area. Enjoy a day among the hiking trails that offer incredible views and lookout points. Stroll to a local park that includes fitness equipment, basketball and tennis courts overlooking a vineyard. This charming, entirely walkable town also offers the opportunity to explore Napa Valley on bike hosted by a knowledgeable guide.

With over four hundred wineries, Napa Valley is known for world-class wine, beautiful countryside and near perfect weather year-round. It is a premier golf destination with beautiful championship courses all around nestled in the gorgeous countryside. For a day with the family, everyone will surely enjoy exploring this incredible region from above with a hot air balloon ride to get a bird's eye view of the lush and awe-inspiring surroundings.

For guests looking for a one-of-a-kind location, luxury, and amenities, Heart of Napa Valley Home and Guest House offers the ideal location year-round.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Julio invented the Palmaz Coronary Stent, a device that revolutionized medicine. (Artifacts related to his research now sit in the Smithsonian Institution’s medical collection.)

Having moved to the United States from Argentina in the late 1970s to pursue medical research at a notable institution, Julio completed his residency at the University of California, Davis, where his passion for wine first emerged. To unwind on weekends, Julio and his wife, Amalia, would drive through Napa in a white Triumph Spitfire, visiting wineries and restaurants. “I had wanted to make my own wines since my days at U.C. Davis,” he would later say. “And where better to make the best wine in the world than Napa Valley?”

Winemaking informed by cutting-edge research, Julio believes, can give any winery an advantage in producing excellent wines. Taking inspiration from famous French wineries and the latest in wine science, Julio played an integral role in designing Palmaz Vineyards’ elaborate gravity-flow winery. In the years since the winery’s completion, he has focused on ways to further refine its operations to ensure that the wine can reach its fullest expression.

In addition to making wine, Julio maintains and restores an impressive collection of vintage Porsche prototypes. He divides his time between homes in Lake Tahoe, Nevada Punta Del Este, Uruguay and Napa, California.

Day 2: Napa Valley Tour

Set a celebratory tone of the day with a visit to Domaine Chandon, learn about the methode champenoise in California, and enjoy a morning champagne toast. Continuing into the heart Napa Valley, visit the town of Yountville and delight in a pastry from the Bouchon Bakery and stroll the gardens of the famed French Laundry. In St Helena, browse galleries and tasting rooms to your heart's content, and enjoy lunch in any of the town's excellent restaurants. Pop into the famed Culinary Institute of a America and take in the sights of the historic Greystone building. Finish the day with a tasting at one of our favorite Napa Valley wineries before returning to Sonoma. Enjoy a second evening on Sonoma Plaza.

*** For our afternoon wine tasting, we often visit one of the following wineries: Silver Oak, V. Sattui Winery, Frog's Leap Winery, Artesa Winery. We also might visit any other winery in the Napa Valley, depending on circumstance.

Castello di Amorosa: Finding Tuscany in the heart of Napa Valley

What's the fastest way to get from California to Tuscany? Try taking a trip to the fascinating Castello di Amorosa. Located in the heart of Napa Valley, this 121,000-square foot winery is housed inside a medieval-style Tuscan castle.

Situated on 170 acres of lush forest, Castello di Amorosa is home to large vineyard that grows Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese grapes which are fermented in Italian handmade steel tanks. The wines are aged in a 12,000-square foot Grand Barrel Room with 40 Roman cross-vaulted ceilings.

This stunning castle was built by Dario Sattui, great grandson of Italian immigrant and California wine pioneer Vittori Sattui. An enthusiast of medieval architecture, Dario Sattui has owned a several castles across Tuscany and used them as inspiration for Castello di Amorosa. He purchased the land 20 years ago and has turned it into a destination for wine lovers.

Castello di Amorosa produces 18 types of wine including Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Rosato di Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Visitors can participate in a series of tours and food and wine pairings.

Celebrity visitors have included Madame Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Jon Bon Jovi and Joe Montana.

Stop by my favorite winery in California’s beautiful Napa Valley for some of the valley’s best wines. From reds to whites to their rare library finds, theirs are truly worth trying.

If you have been following this blog, it’s no secret that my interest and appreciation for wine goes hand in hand with my love of food, travel, and culture. Why? To tell the story of a place – of a people or culture – wine is often a large part of that story.

For centuries and millennia, civilizations have been blending and fermenting fruit juice into wines. Those wines have been part of many a meal, a celebration, even a sacrament (ok, and more than a few events of intoxication-induced debauchery!). People learn about other people, their heritage and culture, and they bond over wine just as much as over food.

Freemark Abbey’s on-site vineyard

Wine has become so much a part of Northern California culture and its marketing/diplomacy to the rest of the world, thanks to the notoriety its wines have gained internationally. And for tourists, a visit to Napa or Sonoma can be transcendent, if not often overwhelming (tour buses of bachelorette parties, anyone?). And for good reason. Its scenic beauty and what seems like an endless variety of commercial wineries and viticultural areas make for a fun wine education and outing with friends.

Of all the wineries I’ve tried, Freemark Abbey is my favorite. Its wines and its people form a great community. My discovery came from an unlikely source: An MBA case study that was turned by my statistics professor into a cursed exam. The exam wasn’t fun, but the subject matter intrigued me. The case centered around the risks Freemark Abbey might take to leave its Johannesburg Riesling grapes on the vine for a late harvest, in the hopes a finicky fungus might take to the crop and produce an extremely rare, intense – and lucrative – dessert wine.

Seriously? Fungus, you say? Just remember the effect of fungal growth on cheese. Gorgonzola, anyone? I know some of you will never get over the idea of intentionally eating something that has rot, but fermentation is responsible for so many of the delicious foods and beverages we eat. I, for one, was intrigued.

Freemark’s wine library represents decades of Napa winemaking traditions and a great sensory history tour!
So three years ago, on a day trip to Napa, my friends and I decided to try out Freemark Abbey. We came for the MBA nostalgia, but we were hooked on their fabulous wines. Several visits later, I am a huge supporter of their wines.

Judgment of Paris-era wines
Having a longer history than many of Napa’s existing wineries, Freemark Abbey has been producing wines for over 125 years. As part of its legacy, its wines were part of the now immortalized 1976 Judgment of Paris face-off between French and California wines. Though California and Hollywood have marketed this event to death for almost 40 years, and I’m sure the French are pretty annoyed with all the hoopla that continues to surround it, it cemented California as an international wine destination and exporter.

Today, Freemark Abbey is transforming its bright – but small – tasting room to accommodate a growing contingent of members and visitors. I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I’d like to enjoy peace and quiet when I visit!
Anyway, enough about the winery, let’s get to the wines! While their Cabernet Sauvignons are my favorite, I enjoy several of their whites, and their Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé is fantastic. So I’ll give you just a few highlights – but keep in mind, this list is not all-inclusive.

  • Their dry Riesling is fairly mellow and not quite as crisp as other dry Rieslings (my favorites being from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Germany’s Rhine River Valley), but it still is refreshing and bright in its complexity. A little citrus, a bit of honey – those are the flavors I detected in some great sips.
  • Viognier was an unexpected favorite, as it isn’t prevalent in California. In my humid, hot home state of Virginia, Viognier is one of our best varietals (and one of the few Virginia wines I’d recommend to serious wine drinkers!). Freemark’s deliciously crisp, dry, and fruity Viognier made more sense when they told me their grapes come from the flatter, hotter southern end of Napa county close to San Francisco Bay than the hills around the St. Helena winery.

If you like rosé and also drink red wine, this Cabernet rosé is for you. You’re probably more accustomed to Rosé of Pinot Noir or European Grenache. But the bolder, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon lends a deeper, more intense flavor of strawberry and cherry than from a lighter grape – at least in my opinion. My friends seemed to agree and drank all my stash, so I am sadly without.

  • Whether you can get your hands on a 2010 (or earlier vintage), 2011, or 2012 of their Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, each one is delicious. The earlier vintages bear the smoothness and maturity of their aging, while the younger bottles are still more than drinkable, with slightly edgier tannins and slightly smokier oak. If you add a bite of cheese or dark chocolate, the dark fruit and hint of sweetness become that much more noticeable.

  • Year after year, the Cabernet Boché is the creme de la creme of Freemark’s vineyards produces their best (and thus scarcer and pricier) fruit. It hails from one of Napa’s drier microclimates, so its juice is extremely concentrated. But it’s so good you almost don’t want to waste it on dinner, yet pairing it with food makes it that much more layered in its complexity. It’s one you’d best start before dinner and then have a glass with food so that you can experience every facet of this smooth wine. The 2004 vintage was particularly amazing.
  • Like the Bosche, wine from the mountainous Sycamore vineyard is in short supply, as its higher-elevation fruit is smaller and of less yield. Its Cabernet Sauvignon is complex, yet balanced and smooth.

  • Though it is hard to come by, their late harvest Johannesburg RieslingEidelwein is outstanding. You won’t want to waste a drop of it. It is not at all syrupy its aroma is part honeysuckle part peach and pear and part floral. If you can try a botrytised vintage, its flavors are all the more intense. When I was handed a vintage 1986 botrytised sample, it truly was drinking the nectar of the gods. They also do a delicious Zinfandel port.

The library tastings:
I was fortunate to score a library tasting. It was proof that some vintages – and the aging process – can lend legendary status to a wine. On the other hand, the unpredictability of the bottling process, especially with natural cork, can turn what once was an amazing vintage into, well, bad vinegar. (Sidebar: synthetic cork is much more reliable for wine preservation and storage, despite the snootiness and traditional appeal of real cork)

Watch the video: In the Vineyard: Veraison and Crop Thinning (December 2021).