Explore the nuances of Napa Valley reds
Red wine: It’s everywhere these days. We can thank Dionysus (or Bacchus if you’re partial to Roman mythology) for creating wine for us mere mortals. And while he introduced delicious whites, scrumptious rosés and radiant reds, chances are high that he preferred the latter — modern-day reds are the equivalent of the exalted black wines that Homer called out in his epic “ The Odyssey.”
A friend of Archer, Brian Kulich — oenophile and one of only 651 Advanced Sommeliers worldwide — earned his certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a renowned organization that “encourages quality standards for beverage service in hotels and restaurants.” Read on for Kulich’s recommendations for wine country wineries that produce exceptional red wine.
So many options — but I love the classics, and the pinots from Ted Lemon, owner and winemaker of Littorai Wines, are just that. The tasting room in Sebastopol is open to the public and serves balanced pinots that will age decades.
El Molino Winery is a great option if you’re in Napa. It’s one of the first wineries in the valley and is to this day family-owned and -operated. The red wine is aged in 70 percent new François Frères oak, and production is 1,700 cases per year. It sells out every year, so consider joining the mailing list if interested in acquiring a bottle or two.
The Donum Estate farms vineyards in Carneros, Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley. Its pinots are based on a Burgundian grand cru model and consistently garner accolades and high scores. Add that to an eclectic collection of large-scale, contemporary sculptures scattered throughout its vineyard landscape and you have a wine-tasting experience you won’t soon forget.
I would suggest Etude Wines on the Napa side of Carneros. Jon Priest is the senior winemaker, and the winery was started by the famous Tony Soter. It is currently owned by Treasury Wines Estates, and the winery (no appointment needed) is on Rémy Martin’s former production site. When Etude moved into the site, it purchased the remaining barrels of eau-de-vie from Rémy Martin, so Etude has its own brandy and sells it on site.
Three Sticks Wines owned by Bill Price III (hence the three sticks) produces exceptional pinot noirs made by winemaker Bob Cabral of Williams Seylem Winery fame. Bill owns the Durell Vineyard on the southern end of Sonoma Valley, Gap’s Crown Vineyard and some other notable vineyards. In the last few years, they converted a historic adobe on the downtown Sonoma Plaza into an incredible tasting room (appointment needed). The red wine is fuller in body and extremely age-worthy.
Small Vines Wines is one of the best kept secrets in the business but, as time goes on, I am sure that will all change. Paul Sloan, his wife and their two adorable kids run the show on his family estate where they live, grow grapes, make their wine and host tastings. The wines are a touch more delicate than the previous few producers and have an approachability in their youth that is downright gulp-able. They are on the west side of Russian River Valley (Green Valley sub-AVA).
Rocca Family Vineyards — these are sleepers to say the least and with an off-the-beaten-road tasting room that resides in a historic old California home, the experience is unique and the wines fantastic. Take, for example, its 2014 Grigsby Vineyard Merlot; it’s elegant and impeccably balanced while putting forth lovely purity and depth.
Seavey Vineyard does a great job with this variety. A small-scale production yields about 3,000 cases of wines coaxed from small, thick-skinned berries with tannins that are handled with kid gloves. If you’re in Napa, call ahead for a tasting and get a first-hand glimpse of Napa’s past.
Twomey Cellars is the sister company to Silver Oak with two locations: one in Calistoga in Napa Valley and the other on West Side Road outside of Healdsburg in Sonoma Valley. The wines produced here are very well balanced and crowd-pleasers to say the least. They also produce delicious pinot noir, so they’re by no means a one-trick pony. Reservations are required for parties of eight or more, and tours are offered based on requests and availability. A must-try: its Napa Valley Single Vineyard Merlot.
Pride Mountain Vineyards is a trek but worth it: The winery literally straddles the Sonoma-Napa County line on top of Spring Mountain, with exceptional views and a welcoming hospitality team. If you’re driving, make sure that this is your first stop of the day and make sure you spit because getting down the mountain takes even more focus than driving up it. Mountain fruit tends to have more structure and tannin, and Pride is not exception; but the elegant nuances of merlot are by no means lost. These wines are pretty and can age decades. Also, check out its cabernet franc (if they have any open).
Speaking of age-worthy merlots, there’s good reason why the classics are classic, and Frog’s Leap is just that. The winery — or at least the idea of the winery — dates back to the late 1970s, and their approach has not change one bit. They believe that wine is made in the vineyard, as do all great producers, and they take a minimalist approach in the winery. Dry-farmed and small amounts of new oak create elegant, silky, bright wines that can live for decades. I’ve had the pleasure of having the 1990 recently and it will go down as a top-five merlot in my life. Definitely make an appointment and enjoy the grounds.
Seavey Vineyard is the sleeper of all sleepers in Napa Valley and one of my favorites. Family-owned and -operated since 1979, the property used to be a cattle ranch. Arthur V. Seavey is a partner of Monterey Abalone Company and Philippe Melka makes the wines. This is not the glitzy side of Napa; it’s the old school side of Napa, and I hope it never changes. Its cab sauvs are often described as powerful, vivid and ample.
Realm Cellars is a fantastic choice for those who love cult wines. Realm took over the old Hartwell estate and is in the midst of major renovations, so visitors are privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the property’s transformation. The hospitality is always on point and tailored to each group of guests. Although not open to the public, tastings ($100 per person) are reserved for members of its mailing list; appointments are recommended 4 – 6 weeks in advance.
Another cult favorite? Promontory‚ Harlan Estate’s newest project. Although it runs $200 a tasting, you’re drinking exquisite Harlan wines — an experience previously unavailable to the general public — and the tasting fee is deducted from a purchase.
So many choices here in California, but you won’t find a better cab sauv-based blend than at Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello. The winery is historic and the views are amazing, but the cab rivals the great Chateux of the Left Bank.
Red wine by the glass includes three Napa Valley varieties (charbono, merlot and cabernet sauvignon), as well as a gamay, listán negro, pinot noir and cabernet franc. Or choose from nearly 40 bottle options — including Grace Benoist Ranch from Etude — plus several sweet wines. The local-favorite Sky & Vine also offers a full bar with hand-crafted cocktails, Charlie Palmer Steak’s bold American menus, breathtaking valley views and stellar, sincere service. Your elevated experience is sure to make the best memories.
Cheers to great friends, new experiences and memorable red wine!