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Spring "release"--chapter 4

by Jon Rusciano

Perfection reigned in the morning sky as the sunbeams streaked from behind the eastern ridge, partially surrounding this paradise.    Breakfast at Sarafornia was looming large in all of our minds.  Dave, of course, wanted to go again.  Our first stop was at 10:30 am.  He had time.   Fortunately all the financial markets were remaining calm throughout this trip.  Breakfast again was a “slice of heaven.”  Calvin and Dave changed their orders from the day before.  For me, it was the same.  Each time, it seemed that we had a different waitress (rather, “server”) who was as nice and accommodating as the ones we had before.  Picky me, I just could not find any flaws.

First vineyard stop this morning would be Chappellet Winery, a short drive south of Lake Hennessey.   As we entered the grounds, following the signs to the proper parking area, it was difficult to determine where the facility was located.  Much effort had been made to nestle the structures into embankments of trees, almost as if hiding them.  Arriving at the visitor’s entrance, we could see a large pyramid looking structure, framed to receive standing seamed roofing, painted a natural brown color to blend with the surroundings.   Exterior walls were plaster with a pale, neutral color which was in a never-ending state of change, as the natural “flora” attached themselves attempting to someday cover and devour this unwelcomed intruder.  The Chappellet family intended to blend this facility into the environment in a harmonious effort to utilize and benefit from its elements.   It was well planned and very “green,” especially considering the fact that it was constructed many years before modern LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) credentials were envisioned.

Stepping inside, there was an immediate change.  I felt like I had stumbled into one of our country’s secret nuclear missile silos.  Wine barrels were stacked high in row after row of racks on pristine concrete floors, covered by this wooden framed, center-peaked structure.  The red glowing lighting inside made me look around for the illuminated indicator, showing which readiness level of DEFCON that our nation was currently under.   After walking around for a while, awaiting the balance of the tour’s participants to arrive and check-in, the cool wine storage conditions and familiar winery smell brought my mindset back to reality.   It was however, a most unique setting.  Besides the shade that the trees yielded, there must have been quite a bit of insulation in the roof structure, because the wine was aging in this building, not in caves.

Our host gave us a tour of the facility and grounds.   Just outside the main structure, in the rear, were numerous rows of solar panels.  They generated enough power for the entire operation.  And, similar to John Shafer’s winery (Shafer Vineyards), their power was routed to the utility company which in turn supplied electricity back to them, at no ultimate cost. 

We returned to a wine-glass adorned table inside the building, over close to where the offices were positioned.  There the tastings were offered.  I was so very impressed by the tour so far that I was hopeful that their product would be equally amazing.  Regretfully, it was not.   Their standard Cabernet was not at all interesting.  The premium (Robert Parker, RP-96) rated 2006 Pritchard Hill Cabernet was good, but it baffles me as to how that one ranked that highly.  The oak barrel seemed to dominate its flavor.  I just did not “feel the love.”  None of us did.  And, I certainly would not pay over $100 for a bottle of it… not really sure what price would “turn my head.”

I drove us back to Silverado Trail and then down to my favorite Soda Canyon Deli, near Napa’s metropolis.  We all ordered various soups and sandwiches, eating them on the grounds as we prepared for our next visit, just a few minutes up the road.  I had tasted the ‘03 and ’05 Cabernet from Darioush Winery before.  Both were quite good.  Magid (my wine advisor and owner of Ludwig’s Fine Wines) had recommended the ’05, but he indicated that the ’06 was a bit lacking.   I arranged this upcoming visit to Darioush believing that their 2007 Cabernet would be available for tasting, from a telephone conversation I had with one of the hosts, weeks before.  Hopes were high.

Darioush Winery is built to resemble a Persian castle, and the theme of this continued as we entered the door.  There was a large centrally positioned bar, where the walk-in tasters all gather to sample wine.  We had an appointment, so someone at the bar requested that we walk over to a corner of the spacious sitting areas with ornate sofas and low tables.   It did not take long to see why this arrangement was planned.   Our host was a scantily dressed, young buxom blond who walked over to the table and commenced with bending over in front of each of us, setting down the wine glass that we would utilize for the tasting.   Her surgically-assisted bosoms would almost flow out of their scant moorings and into the face of each of us.   That kind of approach for selling product tells me that ownership fears the taste alone of your wine will not “cut it.”  Such concepts bring to mind the typical claims (to wives/girlfriends) from male patrons of Hooters, who return to their restaurants over and over again… because they “just love their chicken strips.”  Yeah, right…  

I waited for her to start pouring the Cabernet, and then I asked if it was the 2007.  She indicated that the 2007 would not be released until late in the summer.   Disappointed (and ticked about having been lied to), I did sample the current release.   Magid was right.   It was an off year for Darioush Cabs.   Not a bottle was purchased by any of us.  So in our case, the peep-show was not effective.   Yet I did notice many entranced, young, red-nosed men who would probably be receiving a truckload of Darioush wines after returning home.  Sex sells.

Our next stop was Kuleto Estate Winery.   Calvin and I had visited this winery on our last trip together, but Dave was “still a virgin.”   The spot was so impressive that we had to take him.   I had shown Dave pictures of the grounds, but as we rounded the hilltop where its wonders became visible, he was aghast.  The best of photos cannot accurately portray this mountain vineyard’s majesty.   Having arrived a bit early, we strolled down to the terraced picnic area, which overlooked the sloped vineyards and Pat Kuleto’s vast man-made lake.   He too took photos but said, “I must show this place to Susan (his wife).”  Entering the hospitality room right on time, we noticed that another group was completing their tasting.   Their loud talking and even singing were apparent signs that the hosts had not been stingy with the liquids.

We waited.   For almost 20 more minutes, we remained unnoticed over in the corner.  Then, our host emerged and said that the rest of our group had gotten lost on the way up, but that everything would commence shortly.   We waited.  At the point when we were about to depart, a group of at least 10 young women entered.  They were late twenty to thirty-somethings, all in a reunion of some sort and less than concerned about the delays they had caused.  We decided to stay, as the wines began to pour.  Kuleto’s tour tries to start everyone’s “motor running” with generous pours of their less-expensive Rose.   We all requested that our starter be the premium Cabernet.  They complied without question.  Danielli (top rated) was offered, and we accepted.  The tour took place in the same fashion as always, a walk up the hill to Kuleto’s residence and then back again.  Almost the entire estate can be seen from this modest journey.

Returning to the bar area, Calvin and I asked if they had any more of the ‘05 India Ink, another premium Cab that we had previously enjoyed and purchased.  They found 4 bottles to split between us.   Dave, who had been having meaningful conversations with some of the ladies, finally returned and ask if he could purchase some as well.   After a very brief search in the back room, they uncovered a whole case.   “Heavy Hitter” Dave (of course) said “I’ll take it.”   After the paperwork commenced, I told him that the Ink was not what he was drinking, and none was available for him to taste.   Danielli, although to my palate comparable, is one of those over-$100 per bottle offerings.  With our VIP discount, we acquired the Ink for $65.  The price difference was impressive, and after my assurance to Dave of the Ink’s great value, he continued the transaction.   I told him that if he did not like it, I would buy it from him…. confident that no such cash outlay would ever take place.   Ink’s great.

Down the hill we safely crept, and out to Silverado Trail again.   We had a 4:30 pm. appointment at Steltzner Vineyards, back near Darioush.   Earlier in the year, Magid had passed along a great offer of Steltzner’s ’05 Cabernet at a fraction of the price it normally retails.   At the tale end of another large purchase, I did not want to “push the envelope” that quickly on my pocketbook, so I only took 2 bottles.  After drinking the first, I thought its impressive rich fruit-forward characteristics could have been a day-dream.   I was in the midst of the second bottle at Christmas-time when a sophisticated wine-drinker friend came over and had a glass with me.   As his eyebrows soared toward the ceiling, I had confirmation it was a treasure.   My problem was that my frugal nature had left me with no more “booty” in my chest.  The deal was “off the table,” and the ’06 (Magid insisted) was not as highly regarded.   Thus a visit to the winery would offer me a taste of their ’05 Forty Year Anniversary Cabernet.

We arrived and walked up to the bar.   As I offered my name the host confirmed our blessed VIP status, and began to pour whatever we wanted.   I started with the ’06 Cabernet, and noticed it was indeed not the wine of the previous vintage.  Dave and I took a sip of the Forty Year almost in unison.  “Sweet Julius,” what a fine piece of work that turned out to be.   Our host then indicated that the upcoming 2007 Steltzner Cab was really going to be fabulous.   As I grilled him on his assessments of other (in my opinion) “great” Napa Cabs, he passed.   I thus refrained from any purchases of the much more expensive Forty Year.   I await the new vintage’s release, next spring.

At this point, Calvin and I were pooped, but Dave had secret-intentions of another stop.   The day before on our visit at Orin Swift, the host invited us to attend a private wine tasting at Acme Fine Wines, in St. Helena the following day.   Dave took notes.  I blew it off.  As we proceeded back toward our Calistoga residence, we approached the cross-road where Dave knew the place to be located.   He asked for me to turn onto Fulton Lane off of Silverado which would bring us in front of the facility.   As we came close, he announced his intent and we stopped, right in time for the event.  We walked in (attempting to look important), while Dave spoke with the host, explaining our previous invitation.   The featured wine was poured, and we tasted….forgettable at best.   The interesting part came as Calvin and I wandered over to the far corner of the room, where an attractive woman (late fifties…I would guess) selling her limited (single acre vineyard) vintage of Black Cat Cabernet, began talking with us.   She took immediate interest in Calvin, big handsome football player looking guy that she judged him to be.   Her descriptions of the wine, and the making of it, seemed to get sensual as she scooted her chair up closer, allowing her perch to be “face to face” with him.  Calvin gave me one of those “OMG I’m trapped here because I’m such a nice guy” looks.  She continued her emphatic banter, looking directly at him the entire time.   True to his kind nature, he listened to her story, inserting comments in feigned interest.  When she expressed that she offered “private tastings in my living room,” he blushed and thanked her for the kind offering, but asserted we all were on a tight schedule and needed to depart very shortly.   We both stood up and walked over to catch Dave by the arm, escorting him out.   Calvin took his share of “razzing” about that episode, all the way back to the house… and beyond.

Dinner that evening was at Cindy’s Pawlcyn’s Go Fish Restaurant in St. Helena.  We invited Mike Beatty to join us again, but he had other obligations.  We brought along two bottles of wine that we had purchased during our visit.   One had been opened for tasting back at the house.  As we were seated, our server was handed both bottles, and he quickly refused to open the one in which the cork had been replaced.   We asked to speak with the manager, because the guys at Mustard’s (also Cindy’s establishment) two days before had popped a replaced cork, without a whimper.   She explained California law to us, but decided to take responsibility for this little “white infraction” of the rules.   That was a relief.   We all ordered different selections of fish, and everyone was quite pleased with their choices.   For parties of three or more (especially when big guys are involved) it pays to request seating in one of their spacious booths. 

As we departed for our Calistoga home, we all felt regret that this great adventure was coming to a conclusion.  The trip back was on a Saturday, and thus we missed the mad-house traffic on the freeways, always encountered on the weekday morning returns.  The airport was again loaded with spring breakers coming home from their own week of “sun and fun.” 

Next trip?   Yes there will be one.   This time I am planning an adventure in Paso Robles, a three hour drive north of Los Angeles.   Magid has enticed me with great deals on some of the products of this region.  I have been pleased again to find that Napa is not the only spot on earth with worthy contributions to the world of fine wine.   Although, I still have not scratched the surface of Napa’s seemingly endless number of wineries, I believe this place might offer a new perspective on California’s wine industry.  I will report back, if Sally continues to “tolerate my tales.”  


Café Sarafornia

Ludwig’s Fine Wines

Chappellet Winery

Shafer Vineyards

Soda Canyon Store & Deli

Darioush Winery

Kuleto Estate Winery

Steltzner Vineyards

Acme Fine Wines

Go Fish Restaurant

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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