Napa-Calistoga: Persian Palaces to Gas Nozzle Wine

Trip Start Jun 22, 2010
Trip End Dec 15, 2011

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Flag of United States  , California
Saturday, January 15, 2011

In case it isn't obvious, I like wine. Actually, I love wine and wine tasting. However, I was honestly a little skeptical about Napa. I love Monterey, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. Yet when discussing Napa with others in the non-Napa wine industry, the most common adjectives I heard were crowded, pretentious, "Disneyland-like". None of these sounded that appealing to me.  Yet, I was curious and felt that it needed to be done if I am a true Cork Dork (my preferred label to Wine Snob).  I decided January would be the best time to venture to a wine destination that received 5 million annual visitors. In order to further avoid crowds, Mike and I booked a room in Calistoga, Napa County’s northern most town.

Perhaps a dangerous discovery but it was just about two and a half hours from our house to the city, of Napa.  We grabbed some sandwiches at a local deli and headed to the first winery on our list, Darioush. Before leaving for the trip, we’d flipped though our wine journal trying to narrow down the wineries we wanted to visit. Darioush makes a great Cab called Caravan that Mike and I had really enjoyed.  We pulled up to a Persian looking palace. Mike looked at me; he knows I have a theory that the more grandiose the tasting room the less likely I am to be impressed with their wines. “It is Napa,” I replied to his smirking face. We walked through Roman columns into a tasting room complete with fountains. We had read that almost all tasting rooms recommend appointments; however, not wanting to have to keep to a strict schedule we hoped to that could be avoided in January.

A hostess welcomed us at the door and without any problem, we were seated at the bar. I noticed that the tasting fee was $25 per person and was grateful that both our fees were waived with my Industry card. The wines we tried were all good, though nothing blew us away especially at the steep prices. The cheapest wine we tried was $48, and the prices went up from there. The host was extremely nice and happily gave us some other recommendations, despite our decision not to make any purchases.  I told him we were especially interested in “off the beaten” path wineries, and he pointed us up the road to James Cole winery.

Inside a pretty ranch style house, we found a beautiful yet modest tasting room. A few other customers were sipping wine at the copper bar. I was delighted to notice that the James Cole logo vaguely resembled the Texas longhorn.  I was feeling much more at home than at Darioush.  Lisa, the tasting room manager, took great care of us while we enjoyed the boutiques wines. We were both really impressed with the Malbec and the Il Mostro, a Petite Sirah and Zinfandel blend.  Both were quite pricey but we decided to buy the Il Mostro. I asked how much longer I could lay down the 2006 vintage. Lisa recommended about five more years and I explained to Mike that I would save this until a major Longhorn victory.  I now regret not getting a good “Hook “Em” photo in the tasting room.

Since this was a last minute trip, we had brought our dogs. Luckily the weather was perfect to bring them along as it was not too hot nor too cold to leave them in the car. We left James Cole and headed to a park in Yountville for a little dog walk.  It was a sunny day with the temperature in the low 60s.  What a wonderful January day.  After the park, we visited the dog-friendly winery, Hill Family Estate. Their 2006 Barrel Blend was one of Mike’s favorites, and we had gotten to know a good friend of the Hill Family while living in Coronado.  Mike immediately liked their tasting room which had lots of memorabilia from surf boards and electric guitars, and we both found it refreshing to be in a tasting room with reasonable prices. Nothing we tasted was more than $50. Mike was not as enthusiastic about the 2007 Barrel Blend as he expected, but I thought all the wines were good.  We were both surprised by how much we loved their Merlot, as that is usually one of our least favorite varietals.  It was a great tasting experience as we were the only customers and April, our host, gave us a tour of the memorabilia as well as some great recommendations. We bought the Merlot and a delicious Cabernet/Merlot blend. I was feeling pretty good as we left the winery. Now, I know what you are thinking. We’d been to three wineries, of course I was feeling good. Remember I am a spitter and a dumper (otherwise I am a vomitter). I was feeling good and optimistic that Napa was not a pretentious as I thought it might be.

We continued to make our way towards Calistoga. Next on our list was Clif Family Winery, the same people that make the Clif Bars. Last year in Phoenix we had stumbled across a red blend they make called The Climber. We read a couple good reviews about the winery and headed to the appointment only winery with our fingers crossed. “Give us 10 minutes to set up,” we were warmly greeted. After another quick walk for the pups, we were seated in a quaint room. Mike and I were pleased to hear that the vineyard follows the same sustainable and ethical practices as their other products.  We were also pleased to see that all of the wines were under $40 and most were $28 or under.  We told our hostess, Candice, that we had enjoyed The 2006 Climber Red. “We’re not tasting it,” she told us ” but it’s on sale for $5 a bottle.” Mike and I glanced at each other excitedly. Candice started us off with some Sauvignon Blanc Full of citrus and tropical fruit flavors the round wine finished with vanilla. A check to buy one was written on my tasting notes. The 2007 Gary’s Improv Zin, also received a check for its delicious soft, jammy spice. We enjoyed both the Syrah and the Cab that were served next, but we absolutely loved the 2008 Climber Limited Release. The Bordeaux Blend (minus the Petite Verdot) was lush and reminiscent of chocolate covered cherries and strawberries. In one word: decadent.  We bought two bottles of that (and decided to order six more when we got home.) At $28 (before my Industry discounts), it would be foolish not to.  Needless to say, we walked out of there with a lot of wine before we even got the later shipment.

We drove through downtown St Helena and found the new Tamber Bey tasting room, which was recommended to us at the Hill Family.  The tasting room was built to resemble a barn, a very beautiful barn, with gorgeous stable doors.  No one else was there, and we were free to mosey on up to the bar. We started with a 100% malolactic Chardonnay that started off with tropical fruit and ended with crème brulee.  Yum.  As the 2007 Merlot was poured. Our host explained they were sold out of the wine, but they were still pouring it for tastings.  “You understand, you’re in the Industry. We want to share what we think was an excellent wine and it helps to get Wine Club members. Although some people get mad that we don’t have it for sale”.  I nodded in agreement, not too worried about being disappointed that the Merlot was sold out.  How wrong I was. Mike and I both agreed that this was absolutely the best Merlot we had ever had. It was nothing but awesome with its layers of coffee, berries, and chocolate.  I wanted to bath in it, but all I could do was savor my small taste. No spitting this out.  We tried two very Cabs and went home with a Cab, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Malbec blend called Rabicano. Even though it was not the Merlot, I will still be truly excited to open this delicious wine and enjoy its amazingly long finish.  The prices were a bit higher, but perhaps back in the “Napa range”.  Almost everything was $50 and over. However, everything was excellent and truly one of the best tastings I have ever had.

At this point, we probably should have called it quits for the day, but Mike was interested in trying a place called the Wine Garage in Calistoga.  “We’re going to drive right by in anyway.”  Housed in an old gas station, the Wine Garage is a retail wine store that also makes a few wines of their own. And there is no pretense in this eclectic tasting room, their two most popular blends are sold in half gallon jugs pumped out of kegs into the jugs or your glass by a gas pump nozzle. This was a first for me, and I have to admit that I was surprised that I liked, really liked the Bordeaux Blend. Would a true wine snob, say the same? Maybe not, but this Cork Dork is willing to admit when a wine is nothing else but good. 

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Bill Root on

Thanks Ginger...Great blog,,,,I enjoyed the trip!

Tony Mac on

If not for your blog, we'd be lost in Napa! Thanks Ginger. You didn't mention any wine labels resembling the Florida Gator. There's bound to be someone here who bleeds orange and blue.

gingerschilling on

I never wrote up the rest of the weekend. I also highly recommend Paraduxx: best tasting experience and fantastic wine; Rubicon: quintessential Napa experience with a gorgeous estate and delicious wine; Laird: simple tasting room but good prices for great wine: and Vincent Arroyo: where the winemakers taste (appt only).

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