The family-owned wineries of Napa Valley keep winemaking and winetasting on a personal scale.
In a world where bigger is often presumed to be better, smallness has rarely had much of a following. Small change is trifling. Small potato is trivial. Who wants to be small-minded or small-time? And who wants to think small?
A group of family-owned wineries in Napa Valley - that's who. While the goal of many of their neighbors is to grow large, and while some of the more than 700 Napa wineries already produce hundreds of thousands of cases a year, these families purposely keep their quantity low - from 2,000 to 55,000 cases - and their quality high. And just as their production is on a personal scale, so is a visit to their wineries and tasting rooms. No busloads of tourists tend to stop here. No crowds wait in line for a walk through the winery. Napa Valley has more than 4.5 million visitors a year, second in California tourism only to Disneyland. But it is the few and the knowledgeable who head for these family wineries. In fact, only the few know most of them exist. That's why I enjoy visiting them and why I believe you will, too.
When it comes to visitor-friendly wineries, 15,000-case Bennett Lane knows how to entertain guests. To begin, it has a petting vineyard, row after labeled row of grape varieties where visitors can do just that - pet the vines. Think of it as an adult's version of a petting zoo. You can pick a leaf, a berry and compare them to the leaf and berry of another variety: the serrated leaves of Cabernet Franc to those of Merlot, the large berries of Malbec to the small berries of Petit Verdot. If it's August, you will see the grapes undergoing versaison, when they change from green to their final color - Chardonnay to gold, for example, or Syrah to bluish purple.
A sampling of Bennett Lane's wines in its tasting room costs $10. The winery is especially known for its Cabernet Sauvignon; and its Reserve of that grape is a well-balanced, satiny wine with a black cherry fruit and a long, lingering finish. Among its other wines are a delicious Port-style dessert wine; its well-known velvety Maximus, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah; and White Maximus, whose blend is 87 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 11 percent Chardonnay and 2 percent Muscat. How did the winemaker decide on that percentage of each variety? And would you like to try to do it? For a group of six to eight, Bennett Lane will set up a blending session with beakers, pipettes and carafes of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the three grapes in its red Maximus. Guests make their own blend, bottle it, cork it, label it and take it home. For such a session with instruction plus a wine and cheese pairing and limo service to and from one's lodging, the cost is $175 per person. It's best to make reservations for it in advance. Blending, though, is an art that takes more than one try. When I opened my wine months after I made it, I felt it was the most unbalanced blend I had ever tasted.
What makes a visit to the Frank Family Vineyards memorable is its tasting room, the most jovial in Napa. It reminds me of a small pub in a small town in Ireland where people treat it as the neighborhood social club with regulars as well as visitors. Here, of course, it is wine, not beer, that flows as easily, as generously, as the conversation. The winery itself is housed in the old Hanns Kornell facility that specialized in sparkling wine. And with a bow to history, the Frank winery continues the tradition by making about 2,500 of its 55,000 case production in sparkling wine. Its Blanc de Noirs sparkler is especially noteworthy. Among its still wines I enjoyed are Chardonnay Reserve Caneros, a spicy Zinfandel Reserve, and Winston Hill, a blend of traditional Bordeaux grapes. This is one of the few Napa Valley tasting rooms that does not charge a fee.
Summers Estate Wines averages 15,000 cases a year, a production that includes the relatively rare Charbono (only about a dozen wineries make it); a zesty Zinfandel; a sturdily structured Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon; a sweet, sensuous Port-style Petite Sirah with an aroma of ripe blueberries; and Checkmate, its topof-the-line, premium, Bordeaux-style red wine (only about 75 cases are made each year). Roy Chellemi is the hospitable man behind the bar who welcomes visitors to the Summers spacious tasting room, named Villa Andriana after owners Jim and Beth Summers' daughter. Here the charge is $7 to taste six wines, a fee that is waived with a purchase. The Summers family also invites visitors to use their picnic area. For a private tour of the winery with Ignacio Blancos, the winemaker, they ask that you make an appointment in advance.
Rocca Family Vineyards is one of Napa's smallest wineries, with a current production of only 2,000 cases and growing slowly. The dynamic Mary Rocca, who gave up her dental practice to operate the winery, and her husband, Eric Grigsby, a medical doctor, own this small gem which even now, in its infancy, is producing striking wines. An elegant, complex Cabernet Sauvignon brims with dark chocolate and coffee flavors, while a deep-colored, deep-flavored Syrah would be a perfect match to an autumn dinner of game. And there is Rocca Bad Boy Red, a wine for casual drinking whose blend changes each year and, at $29, is the winery's least expensive wine. Who named it Bad Boy? Not I, Eric Grigsby said. We looked over at Mary Rocca; she just smiled. The physical winery itself is still in the making, and so the family has set up the Rocca Tasting Salon in Napa Town as the place to taste its wines. It is a small, cozy spot with a homey atmosphere, a comfortable sitting area as well as a wine bar. Tastings begin at $10.
These four family wineries are relatively young, having begun in 1992 (Summers and Frank), 1999 (Rocca) and 2003 (Bennett Lane). And that makes Flora Springs the grandmother of them all. Founded 31 years ago by Flora and Jerry Komes and their children, it is now in the third generation. Flora Springs owns 650 acres of top-rated vineyards, yet to keep with the family's philosophy of high quality and low quantity, it sells almost 80 percent of the grapes it grows to 40 other wineries, keeping just enough to make 50,000 cases. And what beautiful wines those cases contain. There is the flavorful Soliloquy Sauvignon Blanc, one of Napa's finest from that grape; a well-balanced Chardonnay; and Rutherford Hill Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Rennie Cabernet Sauvignon (previously named St. Helena Reserve). And there is its magnificent Trilogy, a deeply scented blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Try them, buy them at The Room, Flora Springs' intriguing new tasting cave. The exterior is finished in rough stucco, designed with a series of horizontal wavy stripes; inside, it has a 32-foot curved steel and oak bar. Tastings begin at $15.
Some of us who have been going to Napa Valley for years - long before there were 700 wineries, traffic jams along Route 29 and charges in tasting rooms - miss that quieter, simpler time when Napa was a small rural enclave. Today, it is these family-owned wineries whose personal attention and warm welcomes let us remember how satisfying and exciting - and big - small can be.