This past June 2023, the VENÜ Magazine team, including myself, Tracey Thomas, Owner/Publisher, and Matthew Sturtevant, Decorative Arts Editor, made what we foresee to be an annual pilgrimage to America’s most renowned wine region—Napa and Sonoma, California.
We would like to extend our thanks to Visit Napa Valley for making many introductions and helping us organize our Napa itinerary. I highly recommend reaching out to them or dropping by in downtown Napa. I also want to thank our friends Monty and Sara Preiser and Shari Gherman, co-founders of The American Fine Wine Competition, and Marla and Geoff Bedrosian, proprietors of Domaine de la Riviere, a boutique winery in the heart of the Russian River Valley for their many excellent suggestions and introductions. Join us for an insider tour as we introduce you to some of the very finest establishments in Napa and Sonoma and the amazing people and stories behind them!
Straight out of the gate at SFO, (shout out to SixT Car Rentals for hooking us up with a BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe for our two weeks in wine country), we set our GPS for lunch in Napa.
Gott’s Roadside We enjoyed lunch al fresco on a breezy 77-degree afternoon at the downtown Napa location adjacent to Oxbow Public Market (a fun food hall worth exploring). Founded by brothers Joel and Duncan Gott in St. Helena in 1999 and recognized as a James Beard America’s Classic, Gott’s Roadside is known for its modern approach to creating California-inspired dishes using locally sourced ingredients. My favorite dish at Gott’s is the Tuna Burger (sushi grade Ahi) done to perfection. We loved the Mexican Street Corn, the California Burger with a fried egg, Zoe’s bacon, and balsamic onions, the Ahi Poke Crispy Tacos with sushi grade Ahi tuna, and seasonally fresh Peach Cobbler with frozen custard. Gott’s commitment to local sourcing extends to the glass with a California-centric list of wines and beers, hand selected by Joel Gott. Gott’s has expanded to include locations around the Bay Area. In fact, we ate at the two Napa Valley Gott’s locations several times in our two-week visit. We may have coined a new slogan, “Gotta go to Gott’s!”
Materra Cunat Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll) was our first winery visit. From his days as a young boy working on a Midwest farm, Brian Cunat developed an interest and respect for agriculture and farming that has grown into a life’s passion. Brian and his wife, Miki were enamored with their first visit to Napa Valley with its natural beauty and welcoming residents, along with the exceptional quality of wines, and in 2007, Brian and his brother John purchased a 50-acre property in Napa’s Oak Knoll District and decided to combine their love of wine and dream of farming. The property was transformed with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. In 2014 they completed construction of a state-of-the-art winery capable of producing 150,000 gallons and a beautiful tasting room, and are about to open a new 13,000 SF event space! Winemaker Chelsea Barrett graduated from UC Davis and interned in Austria, Australia, and at Opus One in Napa, becoming a winemaker at Joel Gott wines. We especially enjoyed tasting the “Midnight” 2019 Red Blend of Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot from the property, plus 2% Petite Sirah from Calistoga. Any wine whose tasting notes include “pairs well with Bolognese Lasagna, fennel, and lavender,” works for me!
Robert Biale (Oak Knoll) Robert Biale Vineyards has become a benchmark of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in Napa. From the winery’s inception, the Biales have cherished the tradition of historic old vines (some dating to the 1880s) and prize the small quantity of concentrated and intense fruit they produce. Among the winery’s portfolio of 20 wines that Winemaker David Natali crafts, the Black Chicken Zinfandel is Biale’s flagship. It all started during Prohibition when teenager Aldo Biale helped his mother make ends meet by selling eggs, produce, and some of the family’s homemade Zinfandel. Over the old “party line” phone system, the code words “a Black Chicken” signified a jug of bootleg wine…and kept nosy neighbors and the authorities from finding out! Born and raised in Napa, Robert (Bob) Biale (Aldo’s son), grew up working on the farm. In 1991, Bob and his partners Dave Pramuk, Al Perry, and his father, Aldo, formed Robert Biale Vineyards. Today, Bob is the owner and President. The Black Chicken Zinfandel (2021) is influenced by the breezy and fog-laced Oak Knoll District, offering rich, plush fruit, delicate acidity and a structure defined by well-ripened tannins with notes of black cherry, raspberry, sandalwood, bergamot, cloves, blueberry, and balsam on the nose, and delicate, yet rich plum compote, violets, and baking spice on the palate. “Zinfandel provides more smiles per bottle than any other red wine!” – Dave Pramuk
Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll District) Eugene and Catherine Trefethen, of Welsh heritage, established the winery in 1968. Trefethen Family Vineyards is home to the only surviving 19th-century wooden three-level gravity-flow winery in Napa Valley. Today, the third generation of the Trefethen family continues the vision of their founders of producing high-quality wines sustainably. One of the pivotal moments in Trefethen’s history was the Gault & Millau Wine Olympics held in Paris in 1979, where Trefethen’s Chardonnay was recognized as the best Chardonnay at this prestigious competition. Trefethen’s main ranch comprises 440 acres, with an additional 160 hillside acres dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon just north of the winery. Trefethen Family Vineyards produces a range of excellent wines, including the 2019 Dragon’s Tooth Red Blend, which features Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, with hints of plum, boysenberry, and dark fruit. The 2019 OKD FIVE from the Oak Knoll District showcases all five Bordeaux varietals—Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Petite Verdot, and presents aromas and flavors of blackberry, boysenberry, dark cherry, and earthy, herbaceous notes and pairs wonderfully with rich meats like duck or venison with stewed fruits or braised fennel.
Paloma Vineyard, perched at a 2,250’ elevation on Spring Mountain in the northwestern part of Napa, was the dream of owner/winemaker Sheldon Richards’ parents, Jim and Barbara Richards, who moved to Napa from Canada in the early 1980s and purchased a property their friend Dan Duckhorn told them about—now known as Paloma Vineyard. Over the next 25 years, Jim and Barbara worked to clear, plant, and cultivate the 7,500 Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines on 17 acres at the top of Spring Mountain. Jim and Barbara initially sold grapes to Napa Valley wineries, and 1994 marked the first harvest of Paloma Merlot and Syrah. In 2001, Sheldon, Jim & Barbara’s son, joined his parents at Paloma Vineyard. Wine Spectator named Paloma’s 2001 Merlot “Wine of the Year“ in 2003. The 2004 and 2006 Merlot also made the Wine Spectator Top 100 lists. After their passing, Jim and Barbara’s legacy has left its mark on Spring Mountain and in Napa Valley. Sheldon and his children have continued this legacy. Once lush, Spring Mountain was ravaged in the fall of 2020 by wildfires, which burned much of the heavily forested hillsides, as well as the entire perimeter of the property. Sheldon used his own hose to help stave off the inferno, and thanks to the incredible work of California’s fire crews, the vineyard survived. Unfortunately, Paloma’s entire 2020 crop was lost to smoke taint. Despite the challenges, Sheldon and the many vineyard owners and winemakers we’ve met share an unwavering passion for their work and their resulting wines. “What we all love most about this lifestyle, is you, the people we meet from all over the world.”– Sheldon Richards
Located 1,400’ up on Diamond Mountain, (just north of Spring Mountain), Lerner Project is the pride and joy of Stu and Karen Lerner, Chicago natives with a background in the grocery business. For the Lerners, their “project” is a labor of love, “always trying to make it better than before.” Working with renowned winemaker Russell Bevan, who has 26 100-point scores to his credit, the Lerners wanted only the best and have spared no expense in creating it. Today, Lerner Project comprises five vineyards across Napa, and is best known for heavy-hitting Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends, starting with their iconic Armstrong Ranch vineyard on Diamond Mountain. Purchased in 2017 from Tom and Jane (Armstrong) Byrne, the Armstrong vineyard is comprised of steeply terraced, and sundrenched hillsides. Planted with Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6 in 1983 by the legendary grower, Dick Steltzner, it is also one of Napa Valley’s oldest mountain vineyards. The single-vineyard Armstrong Ranch 2017 represents Lerner Project’s first-ever estate bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon—you can taste the essence of sage which grows on the hillsides.
Mending Wall (St. Helena) is the result of the collaboration of three families who share a deep love for wine; co-proprietors Frank Dotzler, Mark Pulido, Donna Walker, and renowned winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. Frank Dotzler has a long-standing romance with wine and adventure. He initially bought a 20-acre parcel, which he named True Vineyard, and in 2003, expanded his vision by acquiring Outpost Winery and Vineyard and bringing on winemaking legend Thomas Rivers Brown. Mark Pulido and Donna Walker both come from pharmacy families, which influenced their winemaking philosophy. Their approach is rooted in scientific curiosity and emphasizes patience, discipline, and determination. Thomas Rivers Brown takes a hands-off approach to winemaking, allowing the grapes, the land, and the conditions to guide how a wine is grown and produced. He has received numerous accolades, including being the youngest winemaker ever to receive a 100-point score from Robert Parker. He has earned more than 20 perfect scores and was named Food & Wine Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2010. We enjoyed tasting the 2019 Tornahu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena), with flavors of dark fruits and chocolate spice. Mending Wall’s wines are known for their versatility and approachability. In addition to tasting, we loved playing with winery dog Olive, an adorable Frenchie.
For lunch this day, we enjoyed a delicious, relaxing meal at Tra Vigne Pizzeria in St. Helena. “Tra Vigne” translates to “among the vines” in Italian, reflecting the restaurant’s location in the heart of wine country, making it an ideal stop to complement a wine tasting itinerary in Napa Valley. Tra Vigne Pizzeria is best known for its wood-fired, sourdough pizzas, with their perfectly charred, tangy crust, a delicious fusion of Italian and Californian techniques. A standout was the Positano Pizza with sautéed rock shrimp, scallions, and delicately fried lemons. Other highlights include the “Original” Mozzarella al Minuto (warm fresh mozzarella), fantastic Arancini, great pastas, burgers, and salads. We loved dining al fresco on the patio. The Oven Roasted Baby Beet Salad with burrata, micro greens, toasted pistachios, basil oil, and aged balsamic was wonderful! Our favorite cocktails included the Pineapple Upside-Down Car (Courvoisier, Triple Sec, lemon simple syrup, and pineapple juice), and the Smokey Mango Mezcalita (mezcal, triple sec, agave, tajin, lime). Save room for dessert, especially the Chocolate Temptation with cocoa sponge, chocolate cream, hazelnut cream, chocolate glaze, raspberry coulis and fresh raspberry, or the Vanilla Bomboloni—cream-filled Italian doughnuts with chocolate sauce.
Crocker and Starr (St. Helena) The Crocker Estate is some of the Napa Valley’s oldest continually farmed land, dating back to the 1870s when the Irish-born Dowdell family established Dowdell & Sons Winery, planting hops and grapes, and began producing beer, wine, and brandy. While the business was shut down due to Prohibition, the vineyard continued to grow grapes. In 1971, Charlie Crocker and his wife Lucinda purchased the winery and vineyard, renaming it the Crocker Estate. Charlie hails from one of California’s oldest families, (his great grandfather played a significant role in the construction of the Central Pacific railroad). Prior to becoming a vintner, Charlie founded and managed two public technology companies: BEI Technologies, specializing in electronic automobile sensors, and BEI Medical Systems, focusing on sensor-based medical devices. Crocker acquired adjacent properties and planted Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1997, Pam Starr, then the winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery, visited the Crocker Estate and shared her vision of creating exceptional wines from the estate’s grapes, which led to the founding of Crocker & Starr. Pam Starr’s passion for winemaking began when she worked as a harvest intern for Sonoma Cutrer in Sonoma after graduating from UC Davis. Pam transitioned the entire Crocker Estate to organic farming practices, emphasizing sustainability and natural balance. The 1997 Cabernet Franc was groundbreaking for California Cabernet Francs, and the 2000 ‘Stone Place’ Sauvignon Blanc was named the 12th best wine in the world by Wine Spectator in 2005! The 2022 Estate Sauvignon Blanc was delightful with flavors of guava, honeysuckle, and citrus creamsicle.
Merryvale (St. Helena) Profile Estate Picnic The exclusive Profile Picnic experience at Merryvale Vineyards offers an intimate and private wine experience among the vines at the scenic Profile Estate Vineyard, situated on a picturesque ridge 800 feet above Conn Valley, with stunning panoramic views to pair with the wonderful wine. Merryvale’s concierge inquired about any dietary restrictions and preferences in advance, and shared the menu from Oakville Grocery, a renowned Napa Valley general store and eatery owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, which would be providing the gourmet picnic fare. Guests have the opportunity to savor Merryvale’s renowned Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Bordeaux-style red blend, Profile. A dedicated guide assists guests in exploring The Profile Collection, providing insights into the wines and the winemaking process. After lunch, we took a leisurely walk through the vineyard, immersing ourselves in the natural beauty of the estate. Merryvale holds a special place in Napa Valley’s winemaking history, as it was the first winery built in the region following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Merryvale is owned by the Schlatter Family, who is dedicated to winemaking traditions and the future of Napa Valley, focusing on Bordeaux varietals and maintaining long-term partnerships with esteemed grape growers. Merryvale Proprietor Jack Schlatter, a native of Switzerland, arrived in Napa in 1991. “Napa Valley’s diversity of soils and microclimates allows us to grow high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir just a few miles from Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s no other place in the world like it.” The winery comprises two estate vineyards: the 25-acre Schlatter Family Estate and the 40-acre Stanly Ranch Estate Vineyard, both of which are Napa Green Certified. Winemaker Andrew Wright brings his expertise and passion to Merryvale after working at prestigious estates like Harlan and BOND Estates. Our tasting experience included standout wines like the 2020 Silhouette, a Burgundian-style Chardonnay which hinted of Pina Colada with luscious tropical fruit—Burgundy plus a wet kiss. The 2012 Profile boasts flavors of dark sweet cherry, black currant, plum, and spice.
ZD Wines (Rutherford) was founded in 1969 by Norman deLeuze and colleague Gino Zeppoli. Both were aeronautical engineers, and combined the initials of their last names to create ZD, which insiders know as code for “Zero Defects!” Today, ZD Wines is owned and operated by the second and third generations of the deLeuze family and remains committed to producing world-class wines, farming organically, and providing first-class hospitality to guests. In 2018, ZD celebrated 50 years of winemaking. Situated in the heart of Rutherford, ZD is a favorite for world-class Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. For the ultimate experience make an appointment to taste ZD’s innovative pinnacle wine Abacus! ZD’s vineyards include: ZD Wines Rutherford Estate Vineyard, a small, 3.2-acre vineyard on the Silverado Trail along the eastern bench of Rutherford, and ZD Wines Carneros Estate Vineyard, which is planted to 15 acres of Chardonnay and 14 acres of Pinot Noir. As part of ZD’s commitment to biodiversity, the winery hosts honey bees, owl boxes, chickens, and organic gardens. Growing up in a big Italian family, ZD’s Senior Winemaker Chris Pisani learned to appreciate the very aspects that make Napa Valley such an amazing destination: great people, history, wine and food, which you can taste in every sip of ZD wines.
Del Dotto Vineyards (Rutherford and St. Helena) The Del Dotto family’s history in winemaking dates back to the 1400s in Italy. Dave Del Dotto and his wife, Yolanda, wine connoisseurs with an eye for real estate, stumbled upon a 1912 Frank Lloyd Wright craftsman house located in the coveted Rutherford appellation during a wine-buying trip to Napa, and purchased the 17-acre property on the spot. The property’s picturesque view and ideal location led them to plant new rootstock, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sangiovese. Since, the family has acquired vineyards in some of the finest American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), including Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena, Howell Mountain, and Fort Ross-Seaview Sonoma Coast. In 1999, Dave and Yolanda opened Del Dotto Winery & Cave, featuring a hand-dug cave dating back to 1885. Dave brought on Gerard Zanzonico as their first full-time winemaker, bringing nearly three decades of winemaking experience in 2006. Together, they initiated an extensive barrel program, including the renowned “MOFO Barrel,” which blends Missouri Oak and French Oak, contributing distinctive oak character to their wines. Del Dotto Winery is known for its groundbreaking approach to barrel tastings, and were the first to bottle wines directly from individual barrels, offering a unique tasting experience showcasing the influence of oak on premium wines. “The Beast,” Del Dotto’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon blend, received a perfect 100-point rating from Robert Parker and recognition from Wine Spectator. Today, Dave and Yolanda, along with their children, Desiree and Giovanni, are actively involved in overseeing the operations of their three wineries: Historic Del Dotto, Del Dotto Estate, and Piazza Del Dotto. Inspired by their Venetian heritage, the Del Dotto family opened the Venetian Estate on their Rutherford property in 2007, offering a magnificent setting and a robust culinary program led by acclaimed Chef Joshua Schwartz, with an authentic Salumi program that cures local meats using traditional Italian techniques. We enjoyed an amazing barrel tasting, followed by an authentic Italian lunch with wood-fired pizza and house-cured salumi—we thought we were in Italy!
California Brandy House (Downtown Napa) offers an exceptional tasting experience for those interested in exploring world-class California brandy, bringing a modern twist by producing premium brandies made exclusively from California grapes. California Brandy House was founded through an unlikely union between Ansley Coale, a professor, and Hubert Germain-Robin, a hitchhiking Cognac distiller. This partnership led to the creation of Germain-Robin, the first California Brandy that broke free from the traditional constraints of Cognac production, using traditional alembic Cognac stills while harnessing the flavors of California wine grapes. Germain-Robin, produced by California Brandy House, sets a new standard of excellence in the world of brandy. It has gained recognition on a global scale and is made using time-honored techniques, highlighting the luscious flavors of California-grown Colombard grapes, distilled exclusively in Pruhlo Charentais Pot Stills and aged in Limousin Oak Barrels. Germain-Robin brandies offer a delightful sensory experience with a nose of oak spice and fruit-forward hints of apple, pear, honeysuckle, and cherry blossom, and flavors of rich apricot, peach, and well-integrated toasted oak with light accents of cinnamon and brown sugar. Germain-Robin XO highlights the unique flavors and characteristics of California Pinot Noir grapes, resulting in a dark cherry character and a rich, silky mouthfeel. The blend also includes Colombard distillate, adding a fresh apple character, and Semillon, which provides richness with notes of peach and apricot. The combination of fruit and oak flavors creates layers of complexity with vanilla and toast notes from the French oak complementing the fruit character.
Conn Creek “Barrel Blending Experience®” Conn Creek’s enduring commitment to Bordeaux-styled red wines started in 1973 when it was founded by Bill and Kathy Collins in the Rutherford appellation. The energy-efficient winery included 12”-thick walls made of styrofoam, steel mesh, gunite, and 20,000 corks. Today, Conn Creek Winery remains dedicated to producing exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals. Winemaker Elizabeth DeLouise-Gant, who joined Conn Creek in 2017, brings her passion and expertise to the winemaking process. Prior to joining Conn Creek, Elizabeth served as the Assistant Winemaker for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Her background in biology and her love for wine led her to winemaking, where she sees it as a perfect balance of science and art. Conn Creek Winery offers a unique and interactive wine tasting experience known as The Barrel Blending Experience® which allows wine enthusiasts of all levels to learn, taste, and blend from distinctive Napa Valley regions, each with its unique characteristics in terms of soil, climate, and more. In this hands-on experience, guests learn about Napa Valley’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), and receive a guided tasting of AVA Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples, blending instructions, and create their custom wine blend. Participants sample and select from a variety of AVAs which contribute to Conn Creek’s acclaimed Anthology Cabernet blend. Our final blend included fruit from 4 AVA’s, plus a small percentage of Petit Verdot, where a very little goes a long way with its notorious “big chew” and dry mouth characteristics.
HALL Wines (St. Helena and Rutherford) is situated in St. Helena and Rutherford, two prime locations in Napa Valley. HALL Wines comprises five certified organic estates producing classic, highly rated Bordeaux varietals and has received four 100-point scores from Robert Parker, Wine Advocate for the 2010 and ‘13 HALL “Exzellenz” Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2013 and ‘14 HALL Rainin Vineyard Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition, HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was selected as Wine Spectator’s #18 of the Top 100 in 2010 and the 2008 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon earned #2 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines. HALL Wines has received more than 140 90+ point scores, inspiring Craig and Kathryn’s book, “A Perfect Score,” (2016), which became a New York Times Bestseller. In 2013, HALL Wines completed a comprehensive restoration of the St. Helena winery, creating California’s first LEED Gold Certified winery. It also features a visitor center reminiscent of an art museum. Craig and Kathryn Hall are avid art collectors, and their wineries feature carefully selected works of art. Notably, a 35-ft. tall stainless-steel sculpture titled “Bunny Foo Foo” by artist Lawrence Argent stands along Highway 29 in front of the St. Helena winery, a recognizable landmark. Craig Hall hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has a background as an entrepreneur, establishing his real estate company in Texas. Kathryn Walt Hall, an ambassador to Austria, entered the winemaking business with Craig when they purchased the Sacrashe Vineyard in Rutherford. HALL Wines offers two unique destinations where guests can savor exceptional wines and appreciate expressive art collections in beautiful Napa Valley settings.
O’Brien Estate “Best of Class Red- Bordeaux Style Blend” at The American Fine Wine Competition 2023 Bart and Barb O’Brien have been living at O’Brien Estate for the past two decades, making Napa Valley their home. The estate encompasses 33 acres of vineyards, and the grapes harvested from these vineyards exclusively supply the winery for the production of their award-winning wines. The O’Brien’s recognized the potential for exceptional white wines on their site, with the adjacent vineyard having supplied grapes used in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” Tasting, where Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won first place among white wines. After nearly a decade of learning the nuances of their vineyards and refining their winemaking approach, the O’Brien’s realized the potential for red wines on their estate. Legendary wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. described their three Merlot bottlings as “as good as Merlot can be.” O’Brien Estate has cultivated a community of wine enthusiasts across the country by adopting a direct-to-customer approach. During our visit, we enjoyed the 2018 Unrestrained Reserve, with notes of crème de cassis, blueberries, cedarwood, candied violets, and spring flowers. The 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon showcases the classic black fruit characteristics, bold complex flavors, and intense structure expected from a great Napa vintage, including blackberry, black currant, graphite, dark chocolate, tobacco, and spice, complemented by lasting tannins.
Judd’s Hill Winery and MicroCrush- Bottle Blending Day Camp™ was founded in 1989 by the Finkelstein family, who are now in their second generation of winemaking having purchased a 14-acre hillside vineyard in the eastern hills of Napa Valley. Judd’s Hill Winery produces no more than 3,000 cases of wine annually, allowing for a hands-on approach to wine production. Judd’s Hill offers a unique and immersive experience called the Bottle Blending Day Camp™. During this experience, guests engage in a personal tasting, education, and blending session. The blending process involves using samples from four barrels of four different red varietals, all sourced from the Napa Valley appellation, to create a Bordeaux-style blend. We took home bottles of our custom-blended wine, commemorating our visit to Napa.
Canard Vineyards (Calistoga) I was first introduced to Canard Vineyards at an exclusive wine dinner at Sage SRQ restaurant in Sarasota, Florida, which was paired with the gourmet cuisine of Chef/Co-Owner Christopher Covelli. Canard Vineyard has been producing hand-crafted wines in Napa Valley since 1984. Their focus is on creating nine single-vineyard wines each year, each showcasing the unique complexities of the estate’s terroir. Sustainability and dry farming are essential practices at Canard Vineyards with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Located in Calistoga, the 25-acre property was once the homestead of Reason P. Tucker, known for leading rescue efforts for the survivors of the Donner Party, who were trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Canard Vineyard boasts Zinfandel vines that are over 135 years old. These dry-farmed vines continue to yield elegant fruit, making them a crucial component of the highly sought-after Estate and Estate Reserve Zinfandel wines. In addition to Zinfandel, the vineyard includes plantings of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich and Carolyn Czapleski are the heart and soul of Canard Vineyards. Their quest for the perfect vineyard led them to purchase what is now Canard Vineyard in 1983. Managing director Adam Fox, winemaker Brian Graham, and their son Adam form a dedicated team that shares the vision of making the finest wines while honoring the land and its terroir. The 2017 Reserve Zinfandel is a standout wine made exclusively from the 135-year-old vines on the property. It represents the pinnacle of what can be achieved with this varietal when treated with utmost care.
Picayune Tasting Room (Calistoga) A perfect start to a Sunday morning in Napa Valley was a tasting paired with delicious bites at Picayune Tasting Room in downtown Calistoga. With both indoor and outdoor seating options, it’s a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely wine tasting experience. Picayune Cellars produces a diverse range of wines, from Rosé to Napa red blends and even Champagne, made in partnership with a French family. Their commitment to quality and variety ensures there’s something for every wine enthusiast. Picayune Cellars goes beyond just wine—it offers a curated shopping experience as well. The mercantile store features an eclectic selection of artisanal products, showcasing the work of talented individuals, including French Master Knife makers, Native American ledger artists, silk scarf makers, and more. Picayune Cellars was founded in 2011 by Claire Ducrocq Weinkauf and her good friend Jennifer Roberts. They followed the classic French Negociant model, purchasing small lots from talented winemaker friends. Claire Ducrocq Weinkauf, a French native with a background in wine that started with her experiences in France and South America where she worked with renowned wineries and producers. Picayune Cellars and Mercantile aims to provide not just great wines but also genuine experiences. Their eclectic selection of items and collectibles caters to wine lovers and those who appreciate beautiful things.
Gamling and McDuck Tasting Room (Downtown Napa) Gabrielle Shaffer and Adam McClary, known by their pseudonyms, left their successful careers in Minnesota, leading to the creation of their own wine label. Inspired by wines from France’s Loire Valley, they decided to craft wines using California-grown grapes. Gamling and McDuck’s trendy tasting room in downtown Napa offers a refreshing change of pace from the traditional wineries. The room features a comic book created by McClary that tells the story of their courtship and the history of their wine label, adding a unique and humorous touch to the experience. Despite their playful and hipster vibe, Gamling and McDuck take winemaking seriously. They source grapes from various regions in California, including Napa, Sonoma, Suisun Valley, and Santa Barbara. We enjoyed the 2016 Pickberry Vineyard Cabernet Franc from Sonoma Mountain, an engaging and elegant wine with herbal notes. The 2017 Mangels Ranch Chenin Blanc from Suisun Valley, known for its refreshing qualities, featured citrus notes and minerality that reflected the unique vineyard site. The “Poor and In Love” Chenin Blanc, described as budget-friendly yet delicious, adds a touch of irreverent charm to their lineup, making it a perfect choice for date nights or enjoying a sunset at the beach.
Tank Garage Winery (Calistoga) began in 2014, housed in a former 1930s gas station along Route 128. Founding partners James Harder and Jim Regusci sought to create a winery that defied conventions and celebrated misfits, bootleggers, and daredevils. James Harder, originally from near Edmonton, Alberta, had a career in the wine business, particularly in sales and marketing. Tank Garage Winery’s tasting room is known for its eclectic decor, including hanging guitars made from old gas cans. Visitors are even encouraged to play them. The winery also sells harmonicas for those inspired to make music. Tank Garage Winery’s wine labels and blends have a distinctive character. Many wines are named after songs, adding a musical touch to the experience. We tasted the “Love Saves the Day,” a skin-fermented white wine, which is a blend of various grape varieties. This wine, with its unique golden hue and intriguing flavors, reflects the winery’s creative and unconventional approach. The “Heavy Metal Life” California Red Wine, a blend of different grape varieties, offers flavors of blackberry, plum, dried herbs, chocolate, and licorice, providing a rich and complex tasting experience. During our visit, we couldn’t resist the tantalizing aromas from Buster’s Southern BBQ located across the street. The open-air grilled Pacific Oysters and BBQ, as well as live music, made for a perfect follow-up to our wine tasting.
James Cole (Napa) The story of James and Colleen Harder, owners of this sister winery to Tank Garage, met through a mutual friend during a trip to San Francisco. In 2000, they married and purchased an 11-acre property on Silverado Trail. After relocating to Napa, the couple worked diligently to bring their vision to life. In 2007, James Cole Winery’s tasting room opened the doors to their tasting room on the Silverado Trail. Winemaker Bertus van Zyl plays a pivotal role in managing the winemaking process, working closely with vineyard management partners and grower partners to ensure the highest quality grapes. We enjoyed the 2021 Pinot Noir sourced from the Sun Chase Vineyard in Sonoma County. This vineyard, located at a high elevation on a southwestern-facing hillside above the fog line, produced a luscious wine with flavors of dark cherry, wild strawberry, and Asian spices. Despite what may be called a spirited rivalry between the two neighboring valleys, winemakers in both valleys proudly grow or source grapes in the other valley to create their own unique wines.
Castello di Amorosa (St. Helena) Castello di Amorosa (Castle of Love) is the realization of a lifelong dream of Dario Sattui, the great-grandson of Italian immigrant vintner Vittorio Sattui, whose childhood was steeped in winemaking. He dreamed of reviving his family’s wine business, which was shut down during Prohibition. Dario’s passion for medieval architecture grew during his travels in Europe after college, which ultimately influenced his vision for the winery. In 1975, Dario launched V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, with the ultimate goal of creating an authentic medieval castle as the cornerstone of his winery. In 1993, Dario found the ideal property: 171 acres near Calistoga, home to one of California’s first vineyards planted by Colonel William Nash in 1846. Construction of the castle winery began in 1994. Initially planned as an 8,500-square-foot building without cellars, the project evolved into a 14th-century Tuscan castle spanning 121,000 square feet with 107 rooms. The castle’s construction required more than 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled local stone, nearly one million antique bricks imported from Europe, and extensive collections of antiques for the interior décor, and took 15 years to complete. Castello di Amorosa opened to the public in 2007, and includes authentic medieval features such as a moat, drawbridge, five towers, high defensive ramparts, courtyards, loggias, a chapel, stables, an armory, and even a torture chamber. We especially enjoyed the 2017 “La Castellana” Super Tuscan Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese, and the powerful 2018 “Il Barone” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Castello di Amorosa’s picturesque and authentic setting has even been featured in films like Disney’s “The Quest,” making it a recognizable and enchanting destination for visitors.
Truchard (Carneros) Winner “Best of Show White” (Roussanne) at The American Fine Wine Competition 2023 Truchard Vineyards is a family-owned winery located in the Carneros region at the southern end of Napa Valley. Tony and Jo Ann Truchard played a pivotal role in pioneering grape growing Carneros. They began their journey into the wine world by purchasing property and eventually planting their own vineyard, which debuted in 1989. Both Tony and Jo Ann hail from Texas. Tony was in medical school in Dallas, and Jo Ann was a schoolteacher in Austin when they met and married in 1964. Tony received orders to serve in Korea for a two-year tour, but a twist of fate changed their plans. Jo Ann slipped on a grape in a grocery store, broke her knee, and gave birth to their fourth child shortly afterward. This led to Tony being stationed in northern California instead of Korea. During their time in northern California, the Truchard’s took road trips, including a visit to Napa Valley. Tony became interested in the idea of buying Napa property and planting a vineyard, which ultimately led to their acquisition of 400 adjoining acres. We enjoyed a unique tasting with Jo Ann Truchard, that included meeting the animals on the property, including “Little Lou,” an orphaned baby goat. The 2022 Roussanne (a white varietal commonly associated with the Northern Rhône region in France) is a standout, with floral aromas and a crisp mouthfeel featuring flavors of fresh pear, honeydew melon, and apricot. Winemaker Sal De Ianni, originally from Wisconsin, responded to an ad and joined the Truchard family as their winemaker from inception. With a background in Analytical Chemistry he pursued wine appreciation classes to de-stress, which sparked his interest in winemaking.
La Cheve Bakery and Brews: A Taste of Mexico On our last morning in Napa, we took heed of local advice and enjoyed a bountiful breakfast at La Cheve. La Cheve is located in the oldest structure in Napa County, dating back to the 1840s. The restaurant is known for its authentic Mexican cuisine, making you feel like you’re in Mexico or in a border town, at a local favorite spot for breakfast and lunch. La Cheve offers a great selection of craft beers, mimosas, Bloody Marys, and a wine list to complement your meal. The restaurant prides itself on being family-friendly, and their motto reflects this. It’s a place where you can bring your “Abuelita” (little grandmother) for a beer or two, emphasizing a welcoming and inclusive environment. We enjoyed the best Chilaquiles and Huevos Rancheros outside of Mexico! Don’t miss out on the freshly-baked pastries, including the Boozy Morning Bun, a cinnamon bun with whipped cream, adding a sweet and indulgent touch to your meal.
Our first stop in Sonoma was the legendary Rochioli Vineyards and Winery in the heart of the Russian River Valley. The Rochioli family legacy began in 1911 when Joe Rocchioli Sr. immigrated to America along with his parents, Michele and Menichina Rocchioli (they later dropped the second “c”). Originally from a small village near Lucca, the family settled in Northern California. Joe Sr. worked alongside his father on a farm in the Russian River Valley, but like most hardworking immigrants, he aspired to own his own land. In 1934, Joe Rochioli Jr. was born and the family moved to a 125-acre property nearby called Fenton Acres, the future site of Rochioli Vineyards. By the mid-1950s, Joe Sr. had raised enough money to purchase the property, and in 1959 planted Sauvignon Blanc, which, at the time, was a strange new white grape that was used mainly for blends. It was soon discovered by a few famed wineries and became a desirable grape. Today these same vines are still in production and are some of the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines in California. However, Pinot Noir ultimately put Rochioli on the map. Tom Rochioli (Joe Jr’s. son) as winemaker released Rochioli’s first estate wine in 1987, the 1985 Rochioli Pinot Noir, which Wine Spectator named “The Best Pinot Noir in America!” Tom and his wife visited Burgundy, where he was inspired by the Burgundian approach to winemaking, which involves very little tampering in the winemaking process. Tom’s philosophy at Rochioli is inspired by Burgundy—producing terroir-driven wines built on a foundation of superb fruit. We enjoyed tasting with 4th generation Rachael and Ryan Rochioli overlooking the vineyards. The 2021 Estate Chardonnay with aromas of green apple, lemon and vanilla is bright and crisp with a touch of oak and pairs perfectly with local cheeses and charcuterie. The 2021 Estate Pinot Noir was elegant and beautifully balanced, with aromas of ripe cherry, vanilla and a hint of savory herbs, with a big rich mouth-feel, silky tannins and a long finish, and we love their estate olive oil.
Stark Reality Restaurants / Bravas Bar de Tapas Healdsburg. If you want to know where to eat—and eat well, ask a local. In fact, Marla Bedrosian, co-proprietor of Domaine de la Riviere wines in the heart of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, made certain we not only dined at Bravas this trip, but arranged for us to meet Terri Stark, whom along with husband and Chef Mark Stark are the founders and owners of Sonoma County’s most popular group of restaurants. As James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists, Mark and Terri Stark together own and operate seven of Sonoma County’s favorite, and most highly rated, restaurants. We enjoyed a lovely lunch on the patio at Bravas with Terri Stark on a gorgeous afternoon. Bravas is known for its traditional Spanish and modern tapas-style dining in downtown Healdsburg. Among the Chilled Tapas, we tried Spanish White Anchovies, Salmorejo Soup (Andalusia Style Chilled Gazpacho), Tuna Belly Salad with green olives, egg, and shaved celery, Baby Kale Salad with shaved Manchego, fennel, and preserved lemon vinaigrette, and Roasted Red Beets with cinnamon, walnuts and Idiazábal. For Warm Tapas, we enjoyed the Roasted Cauliflower with local blue cheese, bacon, and Marcona almonds; Creamy Chicken Croquetas with ham and gruyere; the sensational Fried Eggplant Chips with truffle honey and rosemary; Crispy Bacalao Cigarillos with marinated olives, lemon zest; Romesco, Dungeness Crab Stuffed Piquillo Peppers with Idiazabal Cream; and Steamed Clams in Cava with garlic, parsley, and chili flakes. For “A La Plancha” items, we enjoyed the Monterey Calamari with salsa verde and lemon, and the fantastic Roasted California Artichoke with Aleppo Pepper Aioli, Manchego cheese, and charred lemon, plus the Original BFC Fried Chicken with DC Mumbo Sauce. Bravas offers a selection of local and Spanish wines, sangrias, and Spain-inspired cocktails. We couldn’t resist the famous Hot Rum Balls—Spanish Fried Pastries with Rum Glaze—Muy Bueno!
Williams Selyem (Russian River Valley) The history of Williams Selyem is indeed a fascinating tale of serendipity and passion for winemaking. Williams Selyem’s journey began in the 1970s when a generous grape grower gave Burt Williams several tons of grapes for free. This act of kindness led Burt to discover his love and talent for winemaking. Burt Williams and his partner Ed Selyem shared a love for French Burgundy wines, however, since they couldn’t afford them, they were motivated to make their own Pinot Noir. Together, Burt and Ed set a new standard for American-made Pinot Noir, and helped elevate Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley to among the best wine growing regions in the world. Williams and Selyem started out as weekend winemakers at Burt’s house in Forestville with Zinfandel grapes grown by the Martinelli family on now legendary Jackass Hill. In 1981, they made the leap from hobbyists to legitimate winemakers. In 1987, Selyem “Rochioli Vineyard” Pinot Noir (with grapes from neighboring Rochioli) won the California State Fair Sweepstakes Prize for top red wine, besting 2,136 wines from 416 wineries! In 1998, the founders sold the winery to John Dyson, a pioneering viticulturist and long-time customer. Bob Cabral joined as head winemaker under Dyson’s ownership. Dyson bought land in Guerneville and established Williams Selyem’s first estate vineyard. They also acquired the Litton Estate vineyard, where they experimented with different Pinot Noir clones using modern genetic techniques to re-create an Old World–style blend. In 2009, Wine Enthusiast Magazine awarded the 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir a score of 100 points, making it the first Pinot Noir in North America to receive a perfect score from any major wine publication.
Pedroncelli (Geyserville) For nearly a century, the Pedroncelli family has been crafting exceptional wines in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. During Prohibition, the family sold grapes to home winemakers to sustain their vineyards. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the Pedroncelli family gradually built their winemaking business. In 1948, John Pedroncelli, Jr. became the winemaker, and his brother Jim took over as the sales director in 1955. The winery was officially purchased by John and Jim from their father in 1963, and the line of wines continued to grow. The third generation took over in the 1990s, refocusing the sales base to include high-ranking restaurants, casual dining and wine bars, as well as independent wine shops across the nation. The winery and vineyards are located in Dry Creek Valley, an American Viticultural Area (AVA) that the Pedroncelli family played a role in forming. The valley’s climate, influenced by marine fog intrusion in the evenings, creates a unique environment for grape ripening. Pedroncelli wines are known for being regionally focused and site-specific. Notably, they have a long history of cultivating Zinfandel, with half of all Zinfandel planted in Sonoma County being in Dry Creek Valley, some of it on Pedroncelli property since the early 1900s. Winemaker Montse Reece joined the winemaking team at Pedroncelli Winery in 2007 serving alongside John Pedroncelli for seven harvests, being named Winemaker in 2015. Her appointment marked only the third winemaker in nearly 90 years and the first woman. A native of Catalonia, Spain, Montse grew up in a culture where wine is considered food and has deep cultural roots. She came to the United States to work first at Gloria Ferrer followed by Rodney Strong Vineyards and Ferrari-Carano before joining Pedroncelli.
Jordan (Alexander Valley) Jordan Winery is known for its commitment to high-quality wines and its beautiful 1,200-acre estate. Owned by John Jordan, whose parents founded the winery in 1972, Jordan Winery focuses on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and hospitality. Jordan’s wines are made in a European style that allows them to pair well with a broad range of foods with an emphasis on the wine’s fruit and acidity. Acidity cleanses the palate and provides balance. Preserving natural habitat and conserving resources are two tenets in Jordan’s sustainability efforts. The winery runs almost entirely on solar energy, and the vineyards and winery are certified sustainable. While an accomplished lawyer in Sonoma County with a business background, John stepped away from his law practice in 2005 to run Jordan. A second-generation vintner, John has utilized his business acumen and philosophy to reenergize the winery. From energy-efficient roofs, solar arrays and water recycling to fruit sourcing, extended bottle aging, soil-mapping studies, and bringing on new Executive Chef, Jesse Mallgren, a Michelin-Star recipient. The highlights of our delicious food and wine pairing were the Truffled Goat Cheese Fondue with White Summer Truffles, paired with the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2021 Chardonnay paired with Brentwood corn, estate tarragon, hazelnuts, and Jordan Chef’s Reserve Caviar by Tsar Nicoulai.
Ledson Castle Winery (Kenwood) Winner “Best of Class for Zinfandel” at The American Fine Wine Competition 2023 The Ledson family’s journey, spanning five generations, is a testament to their determination and work ethic in pursuit of their dreams. It began with Barker Ledson, who left England in 1896, along with his brothers Tom and Stanley, to seek adventure in America. Barker worked as a surveyor in the Mojave Desert, saving his earnings to purchase a 600-acre ranch in Yosemite at the age of 22. His brothers joined him in running the ranch. In San Francisco, Barker’s determination led him to secure a job with the City Ice Company. Barker Ledson’s life took a new turn when he met Edna Cunningham in 1910, and they were married shortly thereafter. The union of the Ledson and Cunningham families marked the beginning of a farming legacy that continues today. They worked cooperatively on ranches in Kenwood and other properties. Fast forward to 1977, when Steve Ledson, Noble Ledson’s son, founded Ledson Construction. In 1989, Steve acquired a 21-acre property in Sonoma wine country and transformed it into a vineyard and winery, known as “The Castle.” Ledson Winery released its inaugural vintage in 1997 and opened its doors to the public in 1999, receiving critical acclaim for its wines. Ledson Winery offers a wide range of wines, and their portfolio has grown to become one of the largest ultra-premium wine collections from a family-owned winery in the United States. Steve Ledson is known for his hands-on approach to selling wines directly to customers. In 2003, The Ledson Hotel & Zina Lounge in downtown Sonoma opened, providing a luxurious place for guests to stay and explore the wineries of Sonoma. The boutique hotel and lounge blend Sonoma’s rich history with modern luxury. The Ledson family’s dedication to winemaking, hospitality, and preserving their farming legacy has made them a prominent figure in the world of wine and Sonoma’s history.
Talisman Tasting Room (Glen Ellen) Winner “Best of Class Pinot Noir” at The American Fine Wine Competition 2023 Talisman’s first vintage was 1993 with 203 cases of Carneros Pinot Noir that were hand-crafted from three tons of Madonna Vineyard fruit. Over the years, Talisman expanded its offerings and refined its winemaking practices. In 1999, they added a Russian River Pinot Noir made from grapes grown on Klopp Ranch. In 2001, a third wine was introduced, sourced from Thorn Ridge Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Talisman’s reputation for making fantastic wine led to a collaboration with Steve MacRostie, who wanted them to produce a Pinot Noir from Wildcat Mountain Vineyard. This partnership helped market the vineyard’s name. By 2017, they were producing 18 wines sourced from 11 different vineyards.
Scott Rich, the founder of Talisman Wine, had a lifelong connection to winemaking, starting from a young age when he observed friends making wine in their basement. His formal education in enology at U.C. Davis and his work with renowned wineries like RH Phillips, Robert Mondavi, Mont St. John, Carneros Creek, and Etude allowed him to hone his winemaking skills and ultimately create the high-quality Pinot Noir and Cabernet wines that Talisman is known for.
Until next time—Cin Cin, Cheers, Prost, Salud, Saluté Santé! ☐