Napa and Sonoma
We sent writer Jen Murphy to California to check out how Napa and Sonoma counties are rebounding after the deadly fires that swept through this famed wine region a year ago
BY JEN MURPHY — Fall 2018
ear the summit of Mt. Veeder, a few California winemakers have gathered at Sky Vineyards in Napa to toast resiliency. Sky’s estate-grown zinfandel and syrah sit on a picnic table surrounded by blackened vines and stumps. The charred surroundings serve as a reminder of the wildfires that swept through Napa and Sonoma counties a year ago and California’s unprecedented wildfire siege at press time — new fires that haven’t seriously threatened this celebrated wine region this year.
With experts predicting wildfires to be a fixture in California’s future, winemakers fear travelers may start choosing alternate vacation destinations, but those in unaffected areas that rely so heavily on tourism need visitors now, more than ever, and they’re prepared to welcome them.
The raging flames seen on TV last fall devastated Napa and Sonoma tourism, even in areas untouched by the fires. Tasting rooms sales plummeted, and the region lost millions of tourism dollars. Yet, of the hundreds of wineries in the area, only about 30 suffered damages.
Sky, a remote appointment-only winery just over the county line from Sonoma was one of the unlucky. Skyla Olds points to the blackened outline of earth where her family home once stood. Her father, winemaker Lore Olds, moved here in 1972 and still handcrafts wine using a century-old wine press, making only 1,000 cases a year. While flames claimed her home and went through much of the vineyards, they just licked the winery, leaving a long, black streak across its wood-paneled side, and 80 percent of the vines have recovered. “As long as we can still make wine, we’ll be OK,” she says, raising a glass. Our makeshift tasting is proof that Sky is ready to welcome visitors in whatever way it can.
Other winemakers have embraced this same let’s-move-forward mentality, using a bit of ingenuity. Take Ray Signorello Jr. at Signorello Estate in Napa, for example. Fire reduced to rubble his eponymous, family-owned winery, leaving a visible scar along the Silverado Trail. Despite losing his home, winery, and hospitality center, Signorello remains positive. “No one got hurt, and we didn’t lose our vineyards,” he reasons. “We grow everything on property, and some of those vines are 40 years old.” He also didn’t lose any wine. He had stored the 2015 and 2016 vintages off property and had already picked and safely stored the 2017 grapes in tanks. He plans to harvest his 2018 grapes this fall.
Construction of a new winery will likely take three years, but Signorello still shares his coveted cabs, chardonnay, and white Bordeaux blend in a temporary appointment-only tasting space on the estate. The winery also takes its experience on the road. Clients provide the location, and the Signorello Estate team creates an elaborate seven-course, wine-paired meal, complete with an educational wine component. “We’ll fly anywhere in the world,” he says.
This resiliency now prevalent throughout Napa and Sonoma makes this a good time to visit (and support) this wine region on the comeback trail. Need more convincing? Here, some of the newest wine experiences that you’re sure to enjoy.
Sky Vineyards: Appointment only.
Signorello Estate: Appointment only.
Retro Style Meets Old- School-Style Wines
Ashes & Diamonds, Napa
Ashes & Diamonds, the new winery project in the Oak Knoll District from former music exec Kashy Khaledi, has infused Napa with a bit of SoCal cool. Designed by LA firm Bestor Architecture, the modular, white building looks straight out of Palm Springs, and the tasting room, with its custom terrazzo bar and Knoll Saarinen lounge chairs, could double as a set from Mad Men. Khaledi tapped talented winemakers Steve Matthiasson and Diana Snowden Seysses to craft classic California cabs reflective of what Napa produced in the ’60s and ’70s. A new Vintage Experience explores the storied midcentury era of Napa Valley and includes a private tour of the estate, vineyards, production facility, and cellar. The experience culminates with a five-course meal prepared by resident chefs Emma Sears and Ethan Speizer. Retro dishes such as steak a la Dewey and Welsh rarebit get paired with current and upcoming releases from A&D, as well as rare Napa bottlings from the ’60s and ’70s, such as a 1972 Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Fun is at the heart of this project, and regular events pair wine with music, literature, and art. Appointment only. 707-666-4777; ashesdiamonds.com
A Family Affair
In October 2017, Andy Erickson and Annie Favia had just debuted their dream winery to the public. Appointments were booked solid, then news of the fires spread. Everyone canceled. A visit to Favia is an experience you should never cancel. You aren’t just visiting a tasting room; the power couple is welcoming you into their home. Erickson has worked in the cellars of cult wineries including Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle, and Favia, his viticulturist wife, trained under David Abreu (see below). Four years ago, they bought the old Carbone Winery, home to some of Napa Valley’s earliest Italian settlers. Using historical documents, they carefully restored the 6.5-acre property, right down to the walnut orchard, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. Their savory-style cabs and red blends rest in wine barrels below the original 1880s Carbone residence, where they now live. A 1947 Airstream Land Yacht doubles as an office, and the Blending Lab, where they host tastings, is housed in a renovated 1930s cabin outfit with a fireplace, shelves of books and historical artifacts, and distillation equipment. Appointment only. 707-256-0875; faviawine.com
Marciano Estate, St. Helena
Marciano Estate functioned as a private winery for five years before finally opening to the public in 2017, providing wine lovers entry into one of Napa’s most historic vineyards. Purchased in 2006 by Maurice Marciano, the French co-founder of Guess Inc., this is a passion project executed with the utmost care. Marciano tapped renowned architect Howard Backen to build the circular stone barrel room and winery. He then assembled a dream team that includes legendary vineyard manager David Abreu, highly regarded wine consultants Michel Rolland and Andy Erickson, and 36-year-old winemaking talent Morgan Maurèze, whose résumé includes Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Chateau Petrus. Just 10 of the property’s 60 acres are planted with grapes — one acre dedicated to sauvignon blanc; the remaining nine planted with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot. Above the winery sits a tasting area, which feels like an art collector’s home, with a large fireplace, sculptures, and coffee-table books by photographer Sebastião Salgado. Maurèze often leads tastings that include the flagship Estate Cab crafted from the best blocks on property. Appointment only.
A Winery Experience Rooted in Agriculture
Wheeler Farms, St. Helena
After selling their Araujo Estate Winery in 2013, Bart and Daphne Araujo set their sights on reviving the last parcel of historic Wheeler Farms. Dating to the 1800s, the original property included a winery and land planted with apples, prunes, walnuts, and grape vines. The Araujos have replanted the existing vineyards and started a biodynamic farm with fruit orchards, edible gardens, olive trees, bees, and chickens. But Wheeler Farms isn’t just about showcasing the Araujos’ new brand, Accendo. A few like-minded producers, including Arrow & Branch and Tor, also make wines in the custom crush facility. A visit is also unique. Agricultural and culinary elements complement the traditional wine-tasting experience. An open chef’s kitchen takes center stage in the wood-clad hospitality house, and a resident chef prepares small bites. The Araujos occasionally host tastings inside or on the patio overlooking Mount St. Helena, and their “Winemakers of Wheeler Farms” tasting includes wines from four or five different producers. Appointment only. 707-200-8500; wheelerfarmswine.com
Rising Stars in California Cabernet
Dakota Shy, St. Helena
Most Napa winery startups take years to garner attention and even longer to earn respect. But the wine world welcomed friends Tom Garrett and Todd Newman with almost instant praise when they debuted their first vintage of Dakota Shy Cabernet Sauvignon in 2008. In the 1950s, Garrett’s great-grandmother purchased a historic Oakville vineyard that lies within the legendary To Kalon vineyard. He still sources grapes from here to make his family’s highly regarded, limited-production Detert Vineyards wines. He has also been mentored by winemakers at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Turley Wine Cellars, and by consulting winemaker Heidi Barrett. At Revana Family Vineyard, he worked alongside Newman, a North Dakota native who honed his love of wine while working at Napa’s beloved and now-shuttered Martini House. While at Revana, the friends plotted running their own winery one day. Last year, that vision became a reality when they opened Dakota Shy’s doors to the public. The duo meticulously source mountain- and valley-grown grapes from both historic vineyards and new plantings. The result: small production, deftly balanced wines. The tasting room, with its speakeasy-meets-Thomas Edison’s laboratory vibe, is quickly becoming one of the toughest reservations in town. Appointment only. 707-244-1184; dakotashywine.com
New Cool Kids
Reeve Wines, Healdsburg
You could easily idle away an entire day at this winery. Surrounded by old oak trees and cacti, the 55-acre property still feels wild and soulful. The brainchild of Missouri natives Noah and Kelly Dorrance, both formerly of Sonoma’s hip Banshee Wines, this new project has a distinct rock ’n’ roll vibe. Black brick walls and a poured-concrete floor give the tasting room a refreshingly original feel. Credit Kelly for the effortlessly cool decor, including an enormous vintage rug and an organic hanging sculpture made from old man’s beard. A soundtrack featuring the Killers and the Police sets the tone on the umbrella-shaded patio, which overlooks an acre of cabernet grapes. Noah also sources grapes from other Sonoma vineyards as well as Mendocino County to go into their sangiovese, riesling, pinot noir, and rosé wines. Wine Club membership comes with serious perks. In addition to quarterly shipments of supersmall-batch wines, members get private chef lunches at the winery, exclusive invites to monthly chef dinners, and discounted rates at the property’s four-bedroom villa. Appointment only. 707-235-6345; reevewines.com
Robert Young Estate, Geyersville
Six generations of the Young family have farmed this Alexander Valley property for 160 years, pushing the boundaries of California winemaking. The family is now innovating the hospitality experience. In August, they replaced a quaint tasting room with the 2,260-square-foot Scion House high above the 470-acre ranch. Visitors reach the new facility via a driveway that winds through a prime block of estate cabernet sauvignon. The building includes a main tasting room, two private rooms for higher-end tastings of cab and chardonnay, a communal area, and two booth areas. A fireplace and works by artist James Armstrong give it a residential feel. Outside, take in valley views by a fire pit while sampling new, small-lot wines and noshing on small bites. Appointment suggested. 707-395-3550; ryew.com
Silver Oak, Healdsburg
Silver Oak has always been synonymous with California cabernet. The opening of the producer’s second eco-sensitive winery also has cemented its reputation as an industry leader in sustainability. In 2016, Silver Oak became the world’s first winery to be LEED-Platinum certified for its Oakville winery and it’s on track for a second certification at this stunning new net zero energy, net zero water facility. Consider the innovations extraordinary, from a membrane bioreactor that reuses water to recycled Levi’s used as insulation. The winery and tasting room eschew hippy-dippy “green” design in favor of a simple, modern aesthetic. Historic barns inspired the look, and Silver Oak salvaged old wine tanks for the redwood siding on the winery and tasting room. The latter, which opened in April, has floor-to-ceiling windows that take in the surrounding 113-acre property, plus a wine library, VIP room, and large dining room serviced by an electric kitchen. Later this year, the winery plans to enter the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous performance-based, green-building certification program measured over a 12-month period. Reservations not required for parties of six or fewer. 707-942-7026; silveroak.com
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