Planing a Trip to Napa? Here are Two Under the Radar Napa Valley Wineries You Must Visit
It feels like there are more wineries in Napa that do not have regular tasting hours than those that do. Plus, there’s an enormous list of them that are not even open to the public. What gives? Well, when you’re the 800 lb gorilla in the room, you get to choose your own bananas.
But, in defense of those that follow this fashion, there are experiences to be had that far exceed just dropping into the typical winery along Silverado Trail or St Helena Highway.
In particular, there are Cain, Ehlers, Gamble and Somerston, all of which require some advance planning and all of which are well worth visiting. Each one takes you to a different corner of the Napa Valley, perhaps a corner you have not yet gotten to know. You will be rewarded in countless ways for venturing off the beaten path, where your GPS is guaranteed not to work and you may as well as be trying to call Mars, as you’ll notice a distinct lack of cell phone service. Might as well bring a real map and just enjoy the scenery.
Let’s tackle the first two, Cain and Ehlers.
Nestled into a valley between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges, Ehlers Estate enjoys a northern Napa Valley microclimate. Blessed with cool morning fog and full sun by mid-day, the 42-acre estate enjoys breezes every afternoon, leading to slow, even ripening. The diurnal swing here can be up to 50 degrees: great for acid retention.
Established by Bernard Ehlers, a Sacramento grocer, in 1886, the beautiful stone barn is the focal point of the estate, and serves as the beyond charming tasting room, replete with comfy seating and walls adorned with paintings by renowned wine artist, Scott Cleek.
Today, the property is owned by the Leducq Foundation, a cardiovascular research trust established by Jean and Sylviane Leducq, a French couple who sought to replicate the ambiance and charm of one of the great chateaux of Bordeaux. They fell in love with the property and purchased it in 1996.
Since 2009, Ehlers Estate has been well-captained by winemaker, Kevin Morrissey, who hails from Pennsylvania, and whose resume includes Stag’s Leap and Etude. His dry east coast wit melds nicely with the California beach boy vibe he picked up from his college years in San Diego. The wines show his soul.
The vineyards, planted entirely to Bordeaux varieties, are certified organic by CCOF, and you will see plenty of beneficial insects and native wildflowers everywhere you look. There are gardens and chickens, and a feeling of being in another century, on a slower, more nurturing clock. Vineyard manager, Francisco Vega, and his 8-man crew, hand-tend the 25 separate vineyard blocks year round. Vega has been there 17 years.
Each member of the Ehlers staff gets to care for ten vines in the 39-acre vineyard. It’s a way to connect them directly to the process and is part of the winery’s commitment to the practices of Rudolph Steiner, whose biodynamic precepts guide this harmonious vine-laden landscape.
Tasting room lead Bradley’s ten vines are in a block of Merlot. They are trellised, in confounding French fashion, extremely low to the ground. “It’s literally backbreaking work,” he confesses. Being well over six feet tall, it’s not something he wants to do for a living. But it makes him intimately familiar with the entire lifecycle of the vine, and gives him an appreciation for what goes into each glorious glass.
Ehlers is the perfect place to begin your winetasting day: arrange for a “Start Your Day” tour, beginning at 9:30, by advance appointment only. Upon arrival, you will be welcomed with a splash of Sancerre-like Sauvignon Blanc, bright as the morning air and delightfully crisp – quite suitable for breakfast.
Bradley will greet you as you enter the beautifully restored farmhouse that serves as tasting room and hospitality center, overviewing the history of the property.
A quick tour of the winery facility and demonstration vineyards follows, with barrel samples from upcoming vintages. We sample the 2014 “1886” Cabernet blend from barrel, noting its sweet perfumey aromas of dark raspberry, vanilla and baking spice. The soft, pliable tannins combine with the abundant acid to create an impression of warm chocolate cake with a tangy cherry topping and a smack of fine tobacco. It has rhythm and swing.
Winemaker Morrissey describes this as typical Ehlers style, which is more international than Californian, saying, “I love acid. I make wines I like to drink. It’s a great insurance against an economic downturn, because at least we can drink our own inventory!”
That probably won’t be necessary, as not only are the wines balanced and beautiful, but they are also well-priced.
Ehlers Estate produces just seven wines: 1886 Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), Cabernet Franc ($60), Merlot ($55), Petit Verdot ($60), Sauvignon Blanc ($28) and Sylviane Rose ($28).
All the wines are fermented lot by lot using native yeasts, aged in French oak and blended at the end of the first year, giving them a full 12 months to integrate in barrel before bottling. Winemaker Morrissey is fond of playing classic rock – perhaps rather loudly – in the otherwise quiet cellar, while he contemplates each wine’s unique composition.
The resulting wines are thoughtful, well intentioned. Each speaks in a clear, distinctive voice, echoing the intent of the vintner. He describes the wines as “siblings: they are all part of a family.”
After our tour, we sit down to croissants freshly baked by Bouchon in Yountville as a reward for our vineyard foray. They go particular well with the beautifully framed 2013 Merlot, softly powerful, like a solo cello playing on a dark stage. It’s the owner’s favorite wine, pretty, red-fruited and floral, with a hint of lemon zest, lively tannins and a cherry marzipan core.
Morrissey admits that his love of Merlot stems from his internship at Petrus. “I did not deserve that!” he confesses, explaining that it is the best property in Pomerol.
Morrissey remarks that his fellow winemakers in the valley routinely seek out his Cabernet Franc for its perfumey, rose petal and cedar-laden aromatics, its silken texture and ultimate poise. The 2013, 100% Cab Franc, truly is a gracefully executed arabesque of a wine, balancing green olives, capers, cigar, blueberry, cranberry and grippy tannin with a smooth cool finish of balsam.
As we finish up the tasting with the current 1886 flagship Cabernet (85% Cab Sauv, 5% Merlot, 8% Cab Franc and 2% Petit Verdot), a seriously lovely marriage of cherry cupcake, olive, blackberry coulis and cedar incense, we are all struck by the exceptional texture. This is due to the long chain tannins that are allowed to develop by limiting oxygen exposure and human intervention. The resulting wines have fine-boned tannins that make them pristine and pure, as opposed to extracted and overwrought.
Says Morrissey, “I don’t want to make wine to be big and impressive. I love when wines are subtle: they go on and on. It’s all about the tannin for me. I don’t need to manage tannins here: they are perfect from the ground. I just try to preserve them.”
Artist Peter Hurd once wrote, “The stuff of great art has always been born of inner vision and contemplation. In what form it emerges depends on the environment and individuality of the artist.” Here at Ehlers, it emerges in your glass.
The Ehlers Estate tasting room is open from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., seven days a week, by prior appointment, for parties of up to six.
3222 Ehlers Lane, Saint Helena, CA 94574
Cain Vineyard & Winery
Chances are, you might never visit this place, so I’ll try and capture the essence of the experience of being in a remote, mountainous setting, where you feel the very earth is moving up from the valleys below to meet you.
Founded in 1980 by Joyce and Jerry Cain, this dramatically set 542-acre estate is way the heck out in the Spring Mountain District, situated in a majestic bowl that overlooks St. Helena. Part of an old sheep ranch known as the McCormick homestead, 82 acres eventually were planted to vines, with the five Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The McCormick family still owns much of the original 3k acre parcel, of which a portion known as the McCormick Sanctuary, was deeded to the California Park System.
The first vintage of “Cain Five” was in 1985, and current owners, Jim and Nancy Meadlock, became partners in the venture in 1986, taking the reins after the Cains retired in 1991. Originally known as Cain Cellars, it is now Cain Vineyard & Winery, but much remains as it was 30 years ago. There is a timelessness both to the property and to the wines, a direct impact of the place itself.
Winegrower and vineyardist, Chris Howell, knows his geology, because this is the most important part of any terroir next to the weather. He insists we climb to the top of an outcrop I swear is volcanic: it isn’t, but the vantage point here serves to impress upon us what a lonely, back breaking job it is to tend vines that cling to knife-edged terraces, like sheep in the wilderness.
It’s clear this man majored in philosophy, despite the wishes of his MIT-educated engineer father. Howell feels the earth’s heartbeat with every footstep, stopping often to listen to its rhythm.
We trek for an hour among the natural cover grasses and wildflowers, including poppies, vetch and clover, observing the relative vigor of the steeply set vines.
Over one grassy rise, we come out on a knoll above a block of Malbec, arranged like a choir in an amphitheater. The vines appear to be in full song, in tune with an unseen conductor. On the ever-present wind, there is the faintest hint of melody, catching your ear like the siren call of Circe.
This place is Howell’s siren call. It’s a rugged life, but the rewards of stewarding such an untamed parcel, shepherding grapes that have never seen a limo or bus full of drunk bridal showerettes, are as innumerable and indefinable as the meaning of life.
One sip of Cain wines, whether from an older vintage when Brett was a dominant factor, or newer ones, where it is less a force — and according to Chris, just another flavor component —speaks of the power of the wild land that raised them. There is no denying they come from an ancient place, deeply rooted in tradition. They taste at once primal and ethereal, a feat achievable only when you are so one with Nature that you do not have to step out of her way.
“Wine is story telling. It connects us to our humanity.” – Chris Howell, Winegrower & Vineyardist
Over a glass of 2001 Cain Five from the thankfully extensive library, Howell observes that when wines age, it’s like the volume gets turned down, but the wine becomes softer, more polished. “It’s like moving from electric guitar to acoustic.”
Arrange appointments to visit for a tour and tasting, or an exhilarating vineyard hike in advance, for groups of up to four people max. Wear your hiking boots so you can kick the dirt.
For those who will never see this place, buy a bottle or better yet a vertical, of Cain wine online or at a fine wine shop, sit outside by a real fire and gaze at the world around you. Truly see it, take it in, reflect on what it means to you at that very moment. Share your perceptions with a fellow observer and create a new story. That’s what Howell intends with every bottle.
Those among you who appreciate the incomparable sensory overload of tasting well-aged wines in the presence of a zen master, understand that a pilgrimage here is necessary.
Cain makes 20k cases total of three different wines:
Cain Concept—The Benchland – Designed to be luscious, silky and eminently drinkable, yet ageable. The current vintage is 2011.
Cain Five—Cain Vineyard, Estate Bottled – The ageworthy heart & soul of the place, this is the flagship blend drawn from the finest lots and designed for complexity and finesse. The current vintage is 2011.
Cain Cuvée—Napa Valley – Meant as an approachable “bistro style” wine. The current NV11 is a blend of two very cool vintages, 2010 and 2011, and is a lovely Merlot-dominated blend, filled with sweet flowers and savory herbs.
Howell says there is no particular secret formula for making the wines: they are done with native yeast, each pick fermented separately, with less new oak being used over time, and a transition towards larger format vessels.
The Cain Five blend, which differs from vintage to vintage, is always created in the spring after harvest and allowed to marry before bottling. Cain Five is truly a taste of the mountains: low yielding vines with a high concentration of climatic intensity, supple as an afternoon breeze, yet powerful as an ocean gale. The stuff of legend.
Cain Vineyard & Winery
3800 Langtry Road, Saint Helena, CA 94574
Phone: (707) 963-1616 | Fax: (707) 963-7952 | E-mail: Winery@CainFive.com
BY: LAURA NESS, WINE JUDGE & WINE WRITER
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at myvinespace.com.