There are about 400 wineries in picturesque Napa Valley, with neat rows of vines punctuated by lovely wineries, some built in the chateau style, others in mission style, some gleaming and modern, all with a back story of the owner’s passion for the grape. Sparkling tasting rooms provide a glimpse into the zeal of the winemakers and showcase their craft.
Though I haven’t visited all of the wineries in Napa, I have tasted wines at quite a few. Wine tasting is very personal, and what caresses the palate of one person may be considered un-drinkable by another. Despite this shortcoming, I’ll share some of my favorite wineries and let you decide for yourself. Recently, my husband, Steve, and I joined several friends in Napa, starting at the extreme northern part of the valley on the Silverado Trail. Wendy, Mike, Gail, Cindy and I were college chums from way back. Wendy & Mike brought daughter, Lauren, the designated driver, and her winemaker friend, Matt, for a day of wine tasting in the Napa Valley.
Since the Rombauer Chardonnay has been a favorite of mine for several years I was puzzled that it took me so long to go to their winery, but it’s out of the way and one wouldn’t just stumble across it. Located just south of Calistoga, it’s almost at the end of the road as far as wineries on this crawl. We headed straight there so we wouldn’t lose focus, and whizzed right past the sign thinking that the nondescript, small, blue sign was perhaps the back road. But no, that turned out to be the main entrance so we turned around, made our way up the small hill and were rewarded with a tasting room in a charming setting, crowded with pine trees framing a stunning view down the valley. We started with the Carneros Chardonnay (2007), smooth and rich as always, the apple and tropical fruit flavors blending with the oak tones from the barrel fermentation to form a long, crisp aftertaste. We sampled the Carneros Merlot (2005), with bright plum and pomegranate aromas, an earthy mushroom aftertaste and a soft, silky finish. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2005), comprised of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc, was characterized by aromas of mint and cedar giving way to layers of berry flavors, balanced by moderate tannins. Our favorite red wine was the Proprietor’s Merlot (2004). Spicy and robust, the flavors of plum, vanilla and berry came through, ending with a lingering finish.
The Rombauer family enjoys a rich heritage in the food and wine world, as Irma Rombauer is well known to generations of homemakers and foodies as the author of Joy of Cooking. Irma was the great-aunt of founder Koerner Rombauer, who has carried that heritage through the wine club, the Joy of Wine. Irma’s cookbooks are available at the winery.
Encouraging the pairing of food and wine, Rombauer offers several secluded picnic tables tucked into shaded nooks and crannies of the flowering garden. We brought out a myriad of picnic foods from the coolers in our cars and enjoyed a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay with our comestibles. One treat that we didn’t expect came from Matt Johnson, a good friend of Lauren Scheck. An oenology major at California Polytechnic University, he was given free grapes last year and crafted a very drinkable Syrah (3% Viognier, 5% Merlot), which he shared with our group. We all gave it rave reviews, enjoying the spicy blackberry, black currant, boysenberry and plum flavors, polishing off the bottle with our cheeses and French bread. Look for Matt Johnson’s wines after he graduates from school and gets established.
We headed down valley on Highway 29 to Whitehall Lane. Known for their big Cabs, we first enjoyed a Sauvignon Blanc (2007). It’s not personally my favorite varietal, but this wine was very drinkable. The Carneros Chardonnay (2006) was balanced and crisp, with light oak flavors. We tasted the Merlot (2006), which was smooth and silky. Following the Merlot were two Cabernet Sauvignons, the 2006 and 2005 Reserve. The 2006 Cab was blended with 7% Merlot and 5% Malbac, increasing the complexity and texture, but our favorite wine at this tasting was the 2006 Reserve Cab. This is what Whitehall Lane is known for, with rich, smooth, powerful flavors of berries, cassis and spice from the French and American Oak. We finished with a delightful Belmuscato dessert wine (2007), sweet without being cloying, with crisp flavors of citrus and peach.
A unique feature of the Reserve Cabernet is the use of the Vino-SealTM glass cork (with an inert “O” ring to provide a seal) as an alternative to cork, synthetic materials and screw tops. This allows the wine to remain pure and eliminates the possibility of cork taint. Whitehall Lane is the first winery in the world to use the glass closure and it will be interesting to follow the adoption of new closure systems in the industry.
In 1993 the Leonardini Family of San Francisco started Whitehall Lane, named for the street that borders the winery, on soil that had been cultivated for wine grapes since the mid-1800s. The heritage of the land continues with this family-owned winery committed to producing world class wines.
Our last stop of the day was at Cakebread Cellars, located less than a mile from Whitehall Lane. Seated outside around a shaded, large table we relaxed and had a leisurely tasting, wending through a Sauvignon Blanc (2007), two Chardonnays, a Rubiyat, and two Cabernet Sauvignons. The reserve Chardonnay (2006), always a favorite, was rich and creamy with a hint of minerality. The Rubiyat (2007), a blend of numerous small lots of grapes from different sites with varying harvest times, changes every year depending on the composition. The 2007 Rubiyat is comprised of Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, in roughly similar amounts, and the delightful berry flavors danced on our palate. Our favorite Cakebread wine was the Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (2004), bursting with robust, complex flavors of cherry, blackberry and plum balanced with earthy notes, tobacco, and chocolate.
Brian and Dolores Cakebread have been making wine for 30 years, enjoying accolades and awards, while also supporting the organic food movement. Today seven Cakebreads run the operation, and offer much more than wine tasting. On their website one can find several different activities where the Cakebreads share their knowledge, from cooking classes to sensory evaluation of wines
We enjoyed a delightful day in the wine country as we visited three top wineries, finding truly outstanding examples of the best varietals of the Napa Valley. Complementing the wine was the priceless value of sharing good times with old friends and new.
3522 Silverado Trail
St. Helena, CA 94574
Whitehall Lane Winery & Vineyards
1563 St. Helena Hwy (Hwy 29)
St. Helena, CA 94574
8300 St. Helena Hwy (Hwy 29)
Rutherford, CA 94573
(all tastings by appointment only)