Napa Wineries At Harvest Time

Our college gang had so much fun on our 2015 trip to Napa that we decided to return for a visit this fall. Napa wineries at harvest time!

Everyone was on board, quite excited to revisit some of our favorite wineries and discover some new ones.

We were even more excited when our pal, Ellen, decided to plan a private surprise birthday party for her husband at one of our favorite Napa wineries. More about that soon.

In planning our Napa 2016 adventure, we decided to take a slower pace and schedule only two tastings per day. It worked out very well and no one suffered from wine tasting fatigue.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing. The struggle is real.

We visited…

Chappellet Vineyards

Chappellet produces a variety of wines including, in my opinion, one of the best Napa Cabernet Sauvignons for the price. They also bottle Molly Chappellet’s favorite – Chenin Blanc – which is light and delicious.


Chappellet was such a hit on our last trip that several of us became wine club members. As wine club members we were able to get all of the tasting fees comped and we were able to use the gorgeous picnic area overlooking the entire valley.

view from Chappellet

Timing was on our side as we had the added treat of getting to see some of the harvesting machinery in progress.

Some people become weak-kneed in the presence of a Maserati. My grandsons go crazy over road construction vehicles. Show me a de-stemming machine that is separating the precious grapes from the leaves and stems and my heart just sings.

Chappellet harvest

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Have you heard of the 1976 Judgement of Paris? It’s the story told in the movie “Bottle Shock” – American wines beat French wines in a blind tasting competition shocking the French and putting Napa on the map.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars  holds the proud distinction of producing the 1st place Cabernet Sauvignon at the Judgement of Paris.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (not to be confused with Stags Leap Winery) describes its wines as “Iron fist in a velvet glove.” I think this is quite accurate.

The Cask 23, Fay and S.L.V. Cabernets we tasted are big, bold and need to be cellared for a while. Because we know and love the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon, we asked our guide if he would pour some for us. He did and, as a result, he sold a bunch of bottles.

My advice to you, if you want to taste something – ask. It usually works out well for both sides.

Lewis Cellars

We scheduled an open day to allow everyone to relax or do whatever they wanted to do.

About half the group chose to stay home and watch the Notre Dame football game. The rest of us chose to “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame” by raising a glass while wine tasting.

Lewis Cellars is owned by former Indy car racer, Randy Lewis, his wife Debbie and son Dennis. A real family affair.

Lewis Cellars

Lewis makes a variety of wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and blends. And, they do it all very, very well.

This tasting experience is small and intimate (limited to 6 people) and truly is all about the wine. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions and learn. Oh, and to taste some killer wines.

Andretti Winery

Carrying on our race car theme and, because our pal Elizabeth has a family connection to Mr. Mario Andretti, we added this winery to our unscheduled day.

Andretti Winery

If the folks at Disney were to add a Tuscany section to Epcot’s Italy, I believe it would look a lot like the Andretti Winery. The grounds are beautiful and very true to the theme.

Although the wines were not my favorite of the trip and we had an unusually cranky guide, it was well worth the stop.

Silver Oak Cellars

Silver Oak Cellars makes two wines: a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, you should definitely put Silver Oak on your list of Napa wineries to visit,

Silver Oak Cellars

Three fun facts about Silver Oak:

Unlike most wineries who use French Oak barrels, Silver Oak ages their wine in American Oak barrels. Silver Oak is so dedicated to this that they bought the Missouri cooperage from which they have been sourcing barrels so that they can be guaranteed a steady supply.

Silver Oak barrel

Silver Oak worked with their cork supplier to develop a process which results in better corks. The industry average for “cork taint” is 4%. Silver Oak’s average is a mere one-half percent. This saves them money and gives us more reliably excellent wine.

Silver Oak ages their wine in bottles MUCH longer than everyone else. Look at the Napa Cabernets on the shelves of your wine store today. You will see lots of the 2014 vintage and maybe even some from the 2015 vintage. Silver Oak won’t start selling their 2012 vintage until February of 2017.

Who needs a wine cellar when Silver Oak stores the wine so long for you.

Just kidding…. Let’s not get crazy. We still need a wine cellar.

Cliff Lede Vineyards

Peter and I had previously tasted their wine but we had never visited Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa.

About 15 minutes into our tour, I turned to another member of our group and said, “I see a new wine club in our future.”

And I was right.

Cliff Lede (pronounced Cliff Lady) produces a variety of wines under their named label and their secondary label “Fel”.

Cliff Lede High FidelityI know that wine scores shouldn’t be considered the only basis on which to determine the quality of a wine but when an expert like Robert Parker tells you that a wine (2013 Cliff Lede Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon) is PERFECT…as in 100 points… you take notice.

And when you see that the rest of their library of wines sports scores like 96, 97, 98 and 99,  you think, “Maybe these folks know what they are doing.”

And, you join the wine club.

Three fun facts about Cliff Lede:

The winery uses an optical scanning machine for sorting the grapes. The machine takes countless pictures per second, analyzes the pictures for size, blemishes, wrinkles, etc., rejecting the losers and letting only the most beautiful and perfect grapes pass.

Cliff Lede optical sorter

(Thankfully, Cliff Lede does not optically judge their visitors based on size, blemishes or wrinkles. All are welcome – no one gets rejected.)

As an homage to the owner’s love of music (heavily weighted on classic rock) each vineyard block is named after a favorite song or album.

Cliff Lede Abbey Road

Aren’t we clever? I bet we were the first to think of posing this way.

And, the winery owns The Poetry Inn, a spectacular hotel comprised of only three rooms and two suites. Sandy at You May Be Wandering wrote a great post about her stay at the Poetry Inn. Check it out.

Napa 2016 was a big success. We revisited some of our old, favorite Napa wineries and discovered some new ones.

Who has suggestions for us for Napa 2017?

Do not drink and drive!

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Napa: 7 Gems And A Clunker Part 1

Recently, Peter and I spent time wine tasting in Napa with a group of friends from college. We had a wonderful, wonderful time and tasted many amazing wines.

There was one clunker – a surprisingly disappointing experience. More on that in Part 2.

Using VRBO, we rented a fabulous 6 bedroom home on the Silverado Country Club golf course. The house featured a pool, hot tub, tennis court, putting green, outdoor fireplace, four patios and so much more. All of this for less than the price of a hotel room!

Napa rental house

If you are traveling to Napa and are looking for a large house to rent, let me know. I will give you the contact info!

The kitchen in this house was fully stocked. Rather than eating out at restaurants every night, we decided that it would be more fun to dine in, taking turns cooking. We also packed a picnic lunch each day so that we didn’t waste any time eating in a restaurant – time that could be better spent tasting wine!

Peter and I brought wine from our how-is-it-possible-we-have-reached-capacity wine cellar.

that wine is not going to drink itself

It seems crazy to bring wine TO Napa but we need help with inventory reduction. As Peter says, that wine is not going to drink itself.

The first stop on our trip was Silver Oak.

Silver Oak is owned by the Duncans, a family with many generations of Notre Dame alumni and very strong continuing ties to the University.

For our group – Notre Dame alums, ourselves – Silver Oak was the perfect place to kick off our wine tasting.

Silver Oak Duncan Hall

The bottle on the right features an etching of Duncan Hall, a dorm on the ND campus named for the Duncan Family.

Silver Oak makes just two wines: a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and an Alexander Valley (Sonoma) Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s it.

With that kind of focus, you might guess that they do a really, really fine job of winemaking. And you would be correct.

Silver Oak’s goal is to make full bodied wine with characteristic dark fruit notes that can be consumed immediately or can be aged for another decade or more. To that end, Silver Oak ages their wine for a couple of years in American Oak barrels then continues the aging in the bottles, finally releasing the wine a good 4+ years after harvest.

Silver Oak offers a variety of tasting experiences and include tastes of wine from their secondary label, Twomey Wines as well.

Silver Oak

Silver Oak’s iconic tower.

Next on the agenda was Alpha Omega.

Alpha Omega

We reserved one of the picnic tables on their property and enjoyed our lunch before starting the tasting.

Once inside the lovely private tasting room, we were treated to a wide array of wines including a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a red blend and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

And, I guess because we were such a receptive audience, our guide, Chris, poured tastes of several wines that weren’t on the menu.

Alpha Omega tasting

Smart move. Our group bought a lot of wine…

We ended day one at Palmaz Vineyards.

Located up, up, up at the top of Mount George, the winery features gorgeous sweeping views of the Napa Valley.

What visitors don’t realize at first is that the winery’s entire production and aging takes place in a spectacular series of caves and tunnels built into the mountain, under the tasting room. You have to see it to believe it!

Fun fact: Dr. Palmaz was one of the inventors of the heart stent. It is not at all surprising that an attention to detail, precision and high tech-ery is evident throughout the winery from production to the tasting presentation.

Also quite evident: that Dr. Palmaz has spent a great deal of money on his “hobby” of making great wine.

Our tasting event included delicious small bites paired with wines. Serving wine with food is a good way to sell wine…I’m just sayin’.


The second day started out at Hall Wines.

The Hall St. Helena property includes a variety of buildings both old and new, lovely, lovely grounds for strolling or enjoying food and wine and lots and lots of very cool art.

Hall entry

Hall art

During our tour of the facilities we were treated to a barrel tasting of the upcoming release Cabernet.

barrel tasting

After the tour, we were seated in a private tasting room (surrounded by even more art), where we enjoyed the Hall Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Jack’s Masterpiece, Ellie’s and Napa Valley Cabernets. And, bought a lot of wine….

There seems to be a theme here.

Before leaving the sprawling grounds of Hall St. Helena, we stopped for a picnic lunch on the patio, reveling in the fact that our trip had been magical so far. Just one delightful experience after another.

Little did we know that a clunker was waiting for us, just down the road at our next stop…

Tune in next time for Napa: 7 Gems And A Clunker Part 2.

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The Napa Earthquake

On Sunday I was working on a post about wine vintage and why it matters. Then I saw this:

Our first thoughts, of course, are for the safety of the people affected and the speedy recovery of the injured. Many, many people have lost their homes. The Governor has declared a state of emergency. It’s a mess.

But I have to confess that my second thought was,

“What about the wine?!?!”

Sometimes we forget that winemakers are, at their very core, farmers. Their crop just happens to be grapes that will be turned into wine.

As with all agriculture, vineyards are subject to the perils of climate, pests, drought and EARTHQUAKES. But unlike their brethren farmers who grow tomatoes or corn or zucchini, vineyards carefully tend their fields then harvest, crush, age, and bottle their crop before they make a penny in sales. This process can take a year or two, or even more. Their crop is at risk every step of the way.

So how might the Napa earthquake affect the Napa wine industry?

Let’s start with the vines.

If you’ve studied wine, you’ve heard the term “terroir”. This is the way winemakers describe the influence that the soil in which grapes are grown has on the wine they produce. Earthquakes shift the ground below the vines and could very well alter the terroir. A shift in the layers of soil and rock below the vineyards can also dramatically change the path of irrigation to the roots.

Already faced with a drought of epic proportions, this could be a big deal. Good thing that grape vines like to be stressed.  

Also unlike other crops, grape vines are used over and over rather than torn up and replaced every year. Winemakers have a lot of time and money invested in their vines which will often produces better and better wine as they age and settle in to the soil.

Only time will tell what effect the shifted ground in the vineyards will have.

Most of the 2012 reds and 2013 whites were comfortably resting and aging in barrels, lovingly tended to by the winemakers who use their expertise in deciding exactly when the wine is at its best and ready to be bottled.

These barrels used to be neatly stacked. Now they are a jumbled mess.

Each of these barrels contains enough wine for about 300 bottles. Many, many wineries had barrels split open. The entire contents lost. Even the barrels that seemed to survive might have hairline cracks that let oxygen (wine’s mortal enemy) into the mix. Only time will tell.

We’ve all seen the heartbreaking pictures of shattered bottles of wine. These bottles were the finished product and represent the income that each winery hoped to finally gain after two or more years of developing the wine. Gone.

The bottles that were lost at Silver Oak were part of their “Library Collection”. Imagine you had a box of hand-written letters from your dearly departed great-grandmother and they were lost in a fire. I’m sure that is how the Duncan family felt about these wines. They were cherished, irreplaceable, priceless and completely lost.

The 2014 crop is, for the most part, still safely hanging on the vines awaiting harvest in the next couple of months. Phew – at least the 2014 vintage is safe, right?

Not so fast.

Many wineries are still assessing the damage to their winery facilities and equipment. Some have lost the very barrels that they were hoping to put the 2014 wine in after harvest and crush.

That’s a problem. It’s not like winemakers can go on Amazon to purchase new French oak barrels with free two day Prime delivery. Not going to happen.

napa winery tasting

The wine industry will feel the impact of the Napa earthquake for some time. The larger wineries will likely be able to weather the storm more easily than the little guys.

One of the very heartening thing that I’ve seen over and over again on social media is the shout out from one winery to another offering whatever help is needed. Yes, the wine industry is a multi-billion dollar business.

But farmers help other farmers when they are in trouble. And that’s pretty cool.

I’m going to do my part by buying and drinking some Napa wine. What about you?

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Choosing A Wine Based On The Name

Mo Wine Please

 What’s In A Name?

Do you ever choose a wine just because of the name?

Maybe it’s something amusing like Fat Bastard or Mommy’s Time Out. Perhaps it’s a funny take on the name of a varietal like Pinot Evil or Marilyn Merlot.

Peter has dreams of owning a winery in Italy. He would produce only Barbera wine and call the winery Hanna. Get it? Hanna Barbera? This is definitely a pun that will play better to the older crowd…

He was crushed (no pun intended there) to discover that his other hilarious idea was taken: Dirty Laundry Winery has already nabbed the name “Kay Syrah”.

Silver Oak Cellars

Sometimes we select a wine to serve because we know the particular winery is meaningful to our guests. We always like to have a bottle of Silver Oak on hand when certain special pals are over because we know it is their very favorite.

Last weekend we were at Notre Dame with our college posse. Peter brought a couple of bottles of wine he had picked up on our trip to Oregon in June specifically to share with this group.  The wines were from Brick House Vineyards.

Thirty four years ago, or so, we were all hanging out at Senior Bar on campus when the Commodores 1977 hit “Brick House” came on the juke box. Arthur grabbed the hand of the nearest gal, who happened to be Elizabeth, and they danced the hell out of the song. It was a an epic performance that is legendary among our group, still.  Peter purchased the Brick House Chardonnay and the Brick House Gamay Noir to celebrate that fabulous dance and the friendships that have enriched our lives.

Wineries often get creative and put great care into the names of their wines, referencing some aspect of the winemaker’s personal life.

I was immediately drawn to Wallis Estate’s “Little Sister” as a great wine to give to our daughter, Annie.  I’m not sure if the wine is named after the winery owners’ second daughter or if it is meant to be the “little sister” to their signature Cabernet but either way, after I tasted the wine I was drawn to stock up on some for myself, too!

The Farm Winery The Big Game

Stanford University graduates might be drawn to The Farm’s wines “The Cardinal” and “The Big Game” named by the winery owners as an homage to their days at business school where they met.

But the grand-daddy of all wine name tales is that of the Owen Roe Sinister Hand red wine. As the story goes, in the 17th century, Owen Roe’s ancestors, the O’Neills and another Irish family, the O’Reillys entered into a rowing competition to see which clan would gain ownership of some very important land. They agreed that whichever team touched land first would win. The O’Neill’s boat was lagging a bit behind so one of the rowers in the boat took a sword, lopped off his hand, and threw it to shore. Since his hand “touched” land first, the O’Neills won the title to rule the land which remains in the family today.

How’s that for a story?!

The story, along with great reviews, convinced Peter to serve Sinister Hand at our wine tasting party a few years ago. It was a big hit.

Are there any wines that you have chosen simply based on the name? Did they turn out to be a pleasant surprise or a one amusement and done?

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