On my last trip to Napa, somehow I managed to get invited to Oakville Ranch Vineyards, in the Oakville appellation of Napa. I did hesitate a little, since I don’t consider myself much of a wine connoisseur. As I wound through the one-lane road up to the vineyard, however, I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. Just as a note for next time, it takes about a half an hour to go from Downtown Napa to the Oakville area! Napa is much more vast than I thought!
Once I reached the near-summit of this particular mountain, Kristin Thompson from the vineyard was outside and ready to take me in her ATV for a tour of the grounds. This mountaintop vineyard has quite a history! Bob Miner, co-founder of Oracle, and his wife Mary, purchased these 350 acres to showcase the unique characteristics of this high-elevation terroir, but also to create a retreat for themselves. The vineyard has worked its way up to planting 89 acres of grapes now, up from the original 55 acres. Kristin explained that the grapes are grown organically, and that the whole vineyard is solar-powered.
Currently, the vineyard produces chardonnay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. They do sell approximately half their grapes to other winemakers in the area, but reserve about half for their own use. Oakville Ranch’s winemaker, Anne Vawter, hails from Walla Walla, Washington, was trained at UC Davis, and sounds like a renaissance woman! She has chickens, loves riding horses, and keeps bees on top of making beautiful wines.
Kristin shepherded me back down to the main buildings, past the mustard plants growing between the chardonnay vines. She pointed out that their plateau section was ready for planting. We passed through rows of cabernet sauvignon stretched beyond the road at the summit.
At the house, we gathered up a basket filled with wine bottles and headed out to the pool. It looks as though the house and pool house date from the early 20th century, maybe between 1900 and 1910. Mary Miner, a patron of the arts, music in particular (a woman after my own heart!), and aficionado of fine living, has installed a Henry Moore sculpture in front of the house. I felt a little bit of a happy connection when I saw that she, like me, spent a significant time living in France. Mary has a sizable grove of citrus trees bordering the pool, where, I imagine, she must spend many happy afternoons. Kristin explained that Mary still spends her weekends at the house, but lives in the city, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She restored the house with unusual modern touches, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness that for myself. Sadly, Bob passed away from cancer in 1994.
Bob’s spirit maintains a strong presence at the winery, however. Kristin laid out the wines we were going to taste, including a blend named Bob’s Blend (2007)—90% cabernet franc, 10% cabernet sauvignon. I love how Mary, Anne, and the managers designate each wine with a song they feel best embodies the character of that wine. In this case, the songs were: Eric Clapton’s “Alberta,” BB King’s “Caldonia,” Elvis Costello’s “Down among the Wine and Spirits,” and Levon Helm’s “Feelin’ Good.” I thought the nose was luxuriously vibrant, and I could sense the fig and black currant of the tasting notes. This wine was aged 19 months in French oak barrels, 60% new, so there isn’t so much of the oak, which typically overwhelms me in California wines.
The second wine was the 2009 cabernet sauvignon. The songs associated with this wine are: Rolling Stones, “Jumping Jack Flash,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” and Jackie Greene’s “Uphill Mountain.” I sensed an earthier nose in this wine, which I think the tasting notes called “oiled leather.” It was aged 22 months in French oak barrels, 80% new. I could sense the higher percentage of oak in the vanilla flavor that lingers a bit on the tongue. Kristin also said there was a bit of smoke, but I don’t think I’ve quite reached that level of wine tasting sophistication!
The last wine we tasted was a beautiful 2009 chardonnay, worthy of being served to my French wine-loving father-in-law. It was wonderfully acidic, without the big, buttery, oak quality so characteristic of Napa chardonnays. The grapes in this wine all come from the plateau area of Oakville Ranch. The wine is aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 70% new. I sensed some pear and apple, very light and lively fruits, although the tasting notes also say there is a hint of cream! Cream, indeed! I would definitely try pairing this with the Casatica cheese (a light, creamy buffalo cheese) I tasted over at Oxbow Cheese Merchant. The songs associated with this wine are: Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” Grace Potter & the Nocturnes’ “The Water,” The Fray’s “Never Say Never,” and Catherine Russell’s “Struttin’ with some Barbeque.”
Kristin was an extremely gracious hostess, and I thank her for educating me a bit about the area’s wine! I have a long way to go in wine, but the journey is pleasant, and filled with passionate, fascinating people.