Napa (Part II of the California Wine Country Adventure)
Continuing through Carneros, we crossed into Napa County, which shares this AVA with Sonoma. Our first stop was Domaine Carneros, which is known for their sparkling wines.
Domaine Carneros Estate and Tasting Room on the Napa side of Carneros.
Domaine Carneros is known as a small grower-producer of Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wine, Pinot Noir, and a breathtakingly beautiful Château overlooking the rolling, sun-drenched vines of Carneros. Founded by the noble family behind Champagne Taittinger, Domaine Carneros was established in 1987 when Claude Taittinger selected a 138-acre parcel in the heart of Carneros, Napa Valley, wisely choosing Eileen Crane-often referred to as America’s doyenne of Sparkling Wine, to oversee the development of the Taittinger style in Carneros. In 2020, after 33 years, Crane passed the torch to a new CEO, Remi Cohen, whose role carries on the Taittinger tradition of visionary female leadership. Ushering in a new era of Domaine Carneros, Cohen brings two decades of experience in all facets of the wine industry to Domaine Carneros. The heart of Domaine Carneros has always been méthode traditionelle sparkling wines, with distinctive styles ranging from the classic vintage-dated Brut cuvee to the luxury Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs. In 1992 rich, complex Pinot Noir was added to the portfolio. All the wines proudly hail from the Carneros appellation, and 100% of their fruit comes from their six estate vineyards comprising 400 acres. As anyone who has driven between Napa and Sonoma can tell you, the Domaine Carneros Château is a stunning regional landmark—tasting on the terrace is heavenly! “Those who know our sparkling wines speak of their balance, depth of flavor and wonderful finish; their great aroma, elegant style and little, tiny bubbles,” says Founding Winemaker Eileen Crane. “Classic. Sophisticated. Timeless. Think Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress.”
Carneros della Notte
Carneros della Notte was founded in 2003 by wine.com founder David Harmon, a good friend we met years back as a longtime supporter of Florida Winefest in Sarasota. His Pinot vineyard is chemical free and the grapes are harvested by hand and exclusively at night while the juice chemistry is more stable. The winery’s name reflects this practice and translates to “Carneros of the Night.” Carneros della Notte is also the first producer to use a glow-in-the-dark wine label to further articulate the winery’s unique approach to Pinot Noir production. Engaged in viticulture and hands-on farming, Dave commits himself to the vines throughout the growing season, doing labor-intensive management and timely harvest. The result is balanced, fruit and spice-based wines with the structure and depth to age gracefully. One of our favorites, “LPR” (Late Pinot Reserve) is a delicious dessert wine that insiders know as “Liquid Panty Remover,” a testament to his sense of humor! David Harmon is also the founder of Own a Napa Vineyard, where you are invited to purchase your own vine(s) for the year, attend a harvest party, and have bottles made with your own labels with grapes from that year’s harvest. Each “owner” gets a name tag on their vine(s) so they can visit their vines.
With Winemaker Justin Preiser at Shadowbox in Downtown Napa.
Shadowbox Cellars in downtown Napa features exceptional wines in an area known for extraordinary wine. Shadowbox began as a passion project for Founding Vintners Monty and Sara Preiser and Ira and Eydie Holz. Today, Shadowbox is known for age worthy Cabernets, Bordeaux Blends, Chardonnay, Semillon, and more, producing small lots of acid-driven and food friendly wines made from grapes sourced from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties as well as Lodi, Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills that produce superior fruit. Monty Preiser earned his law degree in 1976 and before he semi-retired to spend his time in the wine industry he litigated major cases in about 20 states involving the safety of vaccines, tools, and medical practices. Sara Preiser graduated in 1973 with a degree in drama, and then became a spokesperson for DuPont and women’s fashion when Lycra was invented. After they became empty-nesters in South Florida, they decided to write about food and wine as a joint hobby, which not surprisingly led them to the Napa Valley. Soon they were well recognized wine writers and founders of The Preiser Key, the most complete guide to Napa wineries and restaurants. From there it was a short step to making wine, which they first did in 2006. Ira and Eydie Holz share this love and appreciation for wine. Eydie works in interior design and enjoys travel and the arts. Ira Holz was a longtime member of the Chicago Board of Trade and The Chicago Board Options Exchange and brings years of wine knowledge. In 2009, the couples joined forces and Shadowbox was born. Justin, Monty and Sara’s son, grew up in South Florida, attended college at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and moved to Napa Valley and began his day job as Director of Operations for The Preiser Key before becoming winemaker at Shadowbox. His philosophy is “Begin with fantastic vineyards that display the best characteristics for a particular variety, then, don’t screw it up.”
We stopped for a light lunch at Brix, a well-known restaurant along Route 29 in Napa. I enjoyed my salad with fresh local peaches and plums that were ripe and bursting with flavor! Brix is a popular venue for weddings and parties, with beautiful gardens and seating areas overlooking the vineyards and Mayacama Mountains.
PEJU Winery in Rutherford began in 1983 when Tony Peju and his wife Herta (H.B.) bought a 30-acre property in Rutherford and moved to Napa Valley to raise their two young daughters. Peju began selling wines in the garage at their vineyard estate—a lengthy legal battle ensued and Peju prevailed, leading to Napa County creating the legal definition of what constitutes a winery. Next? Reinventing how wine is marketed. Peju embraced the concept of Direct-To-Consumer Wine Marketing, and featured weekly ads in the San Francisco Chronicle. Starting in their garage, they worked to see their dream come true with completion of the iconic PEJU tower in 2003. In 2006, daughter Ariana Peju spearheaded the installation of solar panels, which provide almost 40% of the winery’s energy use. PEJU’s Rutherford Estate Vineyard is California Certified Organic (CCOF), with the family focusing on sustainable practices. Today, Winemaker Sara Fowler oversees 5 vineyards comprising 515 acres. Each site produces grapes with distinct attributes that reflect the variations in soil, terrain, microclimate, and exposure. PEJU’s Estate Vineyards, of which 200 acres are planted, convey a special sense of place and a growing tradition. PEJU winery and HB estate vineyard are situated in the heart of the famed Rutherford appellation. The 30-acre certified organic vineyard is planted to five Bordeaux varietals. Rutherford is famous defined by the phrase “Rutherford Dust” which lends unique qualities to locally produced Cabernet. Classic Rutherford Cabernet flavors include cocoa, chocolate or coffee flavors. Our tasting at PEJU unexpectedly turned into THE most entertaining wine tasting any of us have ever experienced. Enter “Vintnertainer” Alan Arnopole, a long-time area musician and regular entertainer at PEJU—we were treated to a private performance of his iconic Napa Rapa, a rap song inspired by the history and winemaking culture of Napa Valley!
Caymus Vineyards, part of the Wagner Family of Wines, started in 1972 by Chuck Wagner and his late parents, Lorna and Charlie. They were a family of farmers with roots in Napa Valley dating back to the 1850’s. Today, the family’s two Cabernet Sauvignons, Caymus Napa Valley and Caymus Special Selection, are among the region’s most celebrated wines. Chuck now works alongside two of his children, Charlie and Jenny, and the family produces diverse wines from Napa Valley, other parts of California and beyond. Charlie Wagner (Chuck’s older son) now leads Conundrum, showcasing some of the best wine regions California has to offer. In addition to Conundrum, Charlie produces Mer Soleil Chardonnays from the Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey County. Another of his creative endeavors is Red Schooner, a rich, dark Malbec made from grapes grown in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, shipped chilled to Caymus and produced in the supple Caymus style. The newest addition to the Wagner Family of Wines is Caymus-Suisan. Only 30 minutes from Napa, Suisun Valley is still largely undiscovered. With its warm days and cool nights, this pastoral region reminds folks of Napa Valley in the 1960’s. Known for delicious stone fruits and walnuts, it is also gaining recognition for exceptional wine, including the 2019 Caymus-Suisan Grand Durif, a Petite Sirah, the widely grown grape in the region. If you get a chance, visit the new Suisan tasting room. Jenny Wagner, Chuck’s older daughter, is winemaker for Emmolo, which is named for her maternal side of the family. Emmolo offers a fresh take on Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. In 2019, Jenny introduced Emmolo Sparkling, a wine worthy of celebrating that is serious, fresh and creamy.
Frog’s Leap, located in the heart of Rutherford, was the dream and life’s work of John Williams. With the 2019 harvest Frog’s Leap entered its fourth decade of making wine. While an undergrad at Cornell University, he made the trip to Napa Valley via Greyhound Bus where he met Larry Turley while camping on his property, a former frog farm. Larry helps John get a job with his friend Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. As the only employee at Stag’s Leap, John kept cellar notes and helped bottle the ’73 Stag’s Leap Cabernet, which won the famed Paris Tasting! While quaffing almost the entire batch of fizzy Chardonnay John made from grapes he borrowed from Warren, the two coined the name Frog’s Leap as well as the inexplicable clever phrase “Time’s fun when you’re having flies!” John, along with Larry sold their motorcycles to raise the cash to launch their winery as no bank would loan them the money. Frog’s Leap was bonded in 1981 with the winery making its first wines, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel, with grapes purchased from Spottswoode. In 1993 Larry Turley sold his interest in Frog’s Leap to the Williams family to start Turley Wine Cellars. John and wife Julie found a new location for the winery, at the current 40-acre site with its historic Red Barn in Rutherford, which they purchased from Freemark Abbey. Over the years, Frog’s Leap has become a favorite among wine enthusiasts, and one of the most recognized wine labels, undergoing a new fresh and refined look with the release of the 2017 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2018 Chardonnay ‘Shale and Stone.’
Reynolds Family Winery
Reynolds Family Winery in the Stag’s Leap District began when Steve and Suzie Reynolds purchased a run-down chicken farm in 1995 after relocating to Napa from Stockton, CA. Steve continued his work as a dentist for the first two years in Napa, initially planting the property with Cabernet Sauvignon hoping to make a few cases and sell some fruit. It wasn’t long before the couple decided to go all in on this “wine thing.” Steve sold his dental practice and they began sourcing fruit and started construction on the winery. In 1999, they released their first vintage. In 2011, their Cabernet Sauvignon was named #10 wine in the world by Wine Enthusiast. Today, their wines were distributed across the country and have received numerous awards.
Ballentine Vineyards in St. Helena has been family-owned since 1906, representing four generations of history. As a winery with deep roots in Napa, Ballentine is a farm-to-bottle winery, growing all of their own grapes to make limited truly exclusive Napa Valley wine on 80 acres. Ballentine’s specialties are Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon but also produce a diverse range of wines, from refreshing and bright white wine to big, bold red wines. Ballentine Vineyards has been dedicated to sustainable farming for over 100 years. The winery was designed to collect the rainwater from the rooftop and be used for both frost protection and irrigation and has been a solar-powered winery for over a decade. The latest innovation is a treatment plan that recycles every drop of water used in the winery and place it back into the field for irrigation. The story of the Ballentine and Pocai Families began in Lucca, Italy, and Omagh, County Tyrone, Ireland, into the beautiful Napa Valley. Libero Pocai, an Italian immigrant acquired the 115th winery bond in the state of California. Today, Betty Pocai Ballentine along with son Frank Ballentine continue to produce delicious award-winning wines and provide authentic experiences of a working boutique winery. Frank Ballentine has a passion and drive to find new, exciting breakthroughs in the food and wine industries. Fueled by his birthplace and childhood stomping grounds in Napa Valley vineyards, Frank began combining his interests in wine and business while attending UC Davis Enology Program. After a few years as a winemaker, his passion grew to include food; he built a successful food manufacturing and distribution career and was in senior management at Odwalla. In 2012, Frank began managing the vineyards. As he worked shoulder to shoulder with winemaker Bruce Devlin, they both decided to explore the pinnacle of incredible viticulture and wine-making fit for the future of a changing Napa Valley. Frank and Bruce constantly experiment with the 100+-year-old vineyards to discover their ever-evolving potential to create new gems from each vintage.
With Katie Simpson at Chase Cellars.
Chase Cellars in St. Helena has been in the Chase family for five generations. In 1849 Captain George Chase sailed to San Francisco in search of gold. When he came upon shore, George wrote to his good friend and business partner William Bourn, saying “San Francisco promises to be a most lucrative center for men of imagination and business enterprise.” William, who had an eye for good deals and ventures, couldn’t refuse and traveled west to work with George, and became a successful banker. He was so successful that the business community coined the phrase “Bourn Luck.” The property, now known as Hayne Vineyard, was purchased in 1872 by William Bowers Bourn and his wife Sarah Esther Chase Bourn as a summer retreat. While here, they would stay in the white cottage next to the winery and always remarked on how beautiful and peaceful it was. The youngest of Sarah and William’s six children, Maud married William Alston Hayne—who became the namesake for what is now known as the Hayne Vineyard. During this period, William’s son William Bourn II, also a visionary businessman, used his father’s wealth to further develop the Empire Mine, which turned out to be the largest hard rock gold strike in California. Not content to stop there, he also created San Francisco’s first water and gas utilities. As part of his legacy, he built two of the most iconic buildings in the Bay Area: the Filoli mansion, and Greystone. Today, the winery is run by Katie Hayne Simpson, Vintner (great-great granddaughter of William and Sarah Chase Bourn). Over 115 years old, Simpson says their vines “are wise and storied—they are the heartbeat of Hayne Vineyard, and the soul of the wines we produce.” While the vineyard has been around for five generations, Katie’s brother, Andy Chase developed the Chase Cellars brand back in 1998. Russell Bevan, Winemaker at Chase Cellars has countless number of 90-to-100-point scores from the most respected wine critics in the world. You can taste Russell’s energy, passion, creativity, and love for the vines!
Pride Mountain Vineyards
Pride Mountain Vineyards, a 235-acre estate with 85 vineyard acres is located some 2,000 feet above the floor of Napa Valley on Spring Mountain, the crest of the Mayacamas—one of the most unique winery locations in both Napa and Sonoma (it spans both counties, with a line of demarcation through the parking lot). People immediately understand why the winery estate was previously named “Summit Ranch.” The twisting twenty-minute drive west from St. Helena, or east from Santa Rosa, rewards visitors with a stunning view of rugged Mount St. Helena to the northeast and verdant vineyards rising skyward in all directions. Due to their elevation and exposure, these vines receive roughly 27% more ultraviolet light compared to vines on the surrounding valley floors. More light exposure results in tannin and phenolic anti-oxidant levels in their red grapes that are measured to be roughly 25% higher than red grapes in the surrounding valleys; this is the main contributor to the broad-shouldered “mountain character” Pride’s red wines possess. Although the location receives a lot more sunshine, it is about 10% cooler high atop Spring Mountain than in Rutherford on the floor of the Napa Valley. While Pride produces boldly-structured and flavored reds due to the sun exposure, the fruit does not ripen as fast as in the valleys, allowing for nice acidity levels and varietal character. Founders Jim and Carolyn Pride met in their junior year at Chico High School. Jim became a dentist, and the couple married. Leaving dental practice, Jim started a private business teaching dentists how to manage and build their dental practices. This business eventually became known throughout the world as The Pride Institute and Jim established many innovations and practices for the dental management industry that are still in wide use today. In the late 1980’s, after raising their children, the Prides decided that having a little vineyard and selling grapes to local wineries would be perfect. Neither had ever dreamed this idea would turn into a world-class winery! The couple purchased the Historic Summit Ranch in December 1989 and began restoring the estate and planting and tending their own vines, while Jim continued to work. In 2004, Jim passed away from cancer. Their children stepped up and Pride truly became a Family Winery.
Solage Calistoga, An Auberge Resort
Solage Calistoga, an Auberge Resort
We enjoyed winding down our week at Solage Calistoga, a gorgeous, exclusive resort at the north end of Napa Valley, near the charming town of Calistoga. Napa Valley is a World Class destination, and staying at Solage is THE perfect way to experience the very best of what Napa has to offer, in a glorious setting, with unparalleled service and amenities which the Auberge Collection of hotels and resorts is known for.
Staying at Solage gives guests the opportunity to custom plan their stay and incorporate personalized experiences like a Primordial Sound Bath Floating Massage or Signature Mudslide Treatment at the renowned spa, partake in a yoga class, enjoy a private poolside cabana, a private Chef’s Favorite Pizza Experience on your patio, a game of bocce, a hike along historic trails, guided swim lessons and activities for kids, evening s’mores, a personal Peloton, a hot air balloon ride, and more! Rooms and suites are among the most comfortable and inviting I have had the pleasure of experiencing. Solage was designed with a deep respect for nature and the place—putting a fresh spin on wine country style with clean lines, natural materials, and loft-like layouts ranging from 515 to 1,900 square feet. Guests will appreciate the thought that went into the design and décor—starting with the spacious feel of a vaulted ceiling, pebble-stone floor shower and furnished outdoor patio that opens out to all the secret gardens of Solage. Suites emphasize casual elegance with their outdoor shower and soaking tub (or jetted hot tub), and cozy fire pit and comfortable seating.
The cuisine is a perfect complement to the lavishly appointed, yet totally relaxed resort. The signature restaurant, Solbar, is a local favorite for gathering over craft cocktails, unwinding over a leisurely dinner. The restaurant features extensive outdoor seating overlooking the landmark pool, and is beautifully illuminated at nights with a 20-foot fire pit which beckons guests to enjoy the romantic ambience with a special someone, lively conversation with friends, or relaxing over cordials. The best aspect of working at Solbar, according to Executive Chef Gustavo Rios, is being part of a “food culture that respects local produce, farmers and ranchers.” Chef Rios showcases that back-to-the-land reverence with farm-fresh Napa Valley produce. But while the sourcing may be local, the menu’s influences are global, resulting in flavorful, inventive border-crossing cuisine. Solbar divides its menu into light, delicate flavors to stimulate your palate, and bold, savory dishes to comfort your soul, all with ingredients that showcase the best of what’s fresh and seasonal in the Napa Valley. Enjoy outdoor dining on the sunlit newly expanded Solbar patio, which has doubled in size. Solbar serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
After a long day tasting wine, nothing could have beat a leisurely dinner at Solbar. As the sun set and lights came on, the air cooled and the ambience became that of a lovely garden party. For starters, we enjoyed the Crudo of Hamachi with aguachile, mint, avocado, Sourdough Parker House Rolls, Pacific Oysters, Roasted Cauliflower with Rancho Gordo chickpeas, garbanzo beans, cashew-tahini butter, mint, and cilantro, and Uni Carbonara with squid ink bucatini, kombu butter, calamari, Hobb’s pancetta, and furikake—a fabulous fusion of Asian and Italian! Entrees included Grilled Wild King Salmon with roasted baby squash, tomato chutney, charred baba ghanoush, and yellow curry sauce, Rockfish with coconut-lemongrass broth, red quinoa, clams, mussels, shrimp, and herbs, and Liberty Farms Duck with California pistachio porridge, Lacinato kale, duck butter, and cherry jus. For dessert, the Caramelized Apple Tart with Fuji apples, cinnamon-Verjus syrup, and vanilla bean ice cream was totally decadent!
Two other meals we enjoyed in Napa that are worth mentioning are Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena, a gourmet “fast food” drive-in with picnic tables out back (order online in advance—be sure to get the Tuna Burger, it’s sensational), it’s the perfect stop for a quick bite in between tastings! There are several locations.
Bistro Jeanty, in downtown Yountville is the epitome of French bistros. Having been many times over the years, I still have a hard time deciding whether to have the classic French Onion or Tomato Soup en croute. As the passion project of Chef Philippe Jeanty, the restaurant fully embodies his culinary philosophy: fresh, quality ingredients, meticulously prepared and graciously served in a comfortable, informal setting. Born in Champagne, chef Philippe Jeanty learned the basics of French home cooking while helping his grandmother and mother prepare meals for their large family. Between visits to the neighbor’s dairy for warm milk and special evenings with his family at the local bistro, memories of food permeated his childhood. A summer position working under chef Joseph Thuet at Moët & Chandon when he was 14 quickly turned into three years of intensive training. It was this life-changing experience that confirmed Philippe’s calling to become a chef. Philippe first came to Napa in 1977 with a team from Epernay to open Chandon Restaurant, where he stayed and garnered numerous accolades until 1998 when he realized his dream in opening Bistro Jeanty.
I am honored to recognize the following restaurants as Fred Bollaci Enterprises Platinum Palate recipients: Solbar and Solage Calistoga, an Auberge Resort, and Bistro Jeanty. The following have been recognized as Golden Palate recipients: Brix and Gott’s Roadside.
We are so thankful for the wonderful friendships we made in our travels through Napa and Sonoma, and look forward to returning to discover and enjoy more great wineries, restaurants, and places to stay. Our goal is to introduce you to some of the amazing folks whose hard work and dedication make this one of the most incredible destinations. These great folks in wine, food, and hospitality in wine country have had to endure a lot lately, between the fires and shutdowns due to the pandemic, and they want you to know they are ready to welcome you and show you the very best! If you’re ready to open a bottle of wine and plan the wine country trip of a lifetime, to one of the most renowned regions for wine, food, and breathtaking beauty in the world, we’re glad to have been of service! Bon Voyage et Santé!