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springtime escape--napa--part three

by Jon Rusciano

The day began much like the others had.  We were fortunate to have our visit sandwiched in between rainy periods, so the valley was alive with bright colors the mustards offered.  Breakfast was a little more relaxed, because we knew the first stop of our day would be a mere mile or two north of Calistoga on 128.  Dave had requested this visit to Storybook Mountain Vineyards, the driveway of which was accessed off of the highway.  We pulled up on time, with our tour guide (Wayne) standing in the parking lot awaiting our arrival.  Unfortunately, the other group in our 10 am. scheduled tour was less concerned with punctuality, arriving several minutes past.  It might not have been a problem, except for the fact that we were due many miles south, atop Pritchard Hill at 11 am. 


We hiked up the hillside vineyards of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Voignier grape vines, and then followed Wayne into their caves where the wine was aging in barrels.  The history of the vineyard was impressive, dating back to the early 1880’s, with the caves being created later that same decade.  These were not the augured configuration of current day caverns, rather the stuff of sweat, picks and blasting.  The tasting area was in a newer section of the labyrinth, which had been coated with Gunnite.  Regretfully, the wines they offered for tasting that day were forgettable, at best.  Dave told us he had sampled much better in the past.  The “good stuff” just was not out that morning.  Our visit was almost cut short, calculating the drive time it would take to our next (and most important) tour.


With too few minutes for the distance to travel, we rushed along the back-route (Silverado Trail) to Sage Canyon Rd., which skirted Lake Hennessey.  Near the boat ramp, there were driveways to the right which led to several Pritchard Hill properties.  Our destination was Continuum Estate, a vineyard and winery started by Tim Mondavi and his famous father Robert.  Years ago, my wine resource Magid suggested purchasing some bottles of their 2005 vintage, the first produced.  It was cellared, awaiting a prime time for consumption.  In subsequent years, without even having a taste of this highly rated Proprietary Red, more was acquired.   Upon hearing that the 2009 was being released, I reasoned that maybe a bottle should be consumed before amassing so much of a wine which may or may not be appreciated by my palate.  My neighbor and good friend Bob Buck assisted me in this investigation.  We sat out by his backyard pool on a warm summer evening and cruised through one of the 2005’s.  Holy-Jumpin-Jesse it was sinfully good.  Not long after, my continuing research uncovered an interesting fact…Mondavi had opened the new winery to visitors.  Thus, it became the priority stop of this trip.


Up the winding graveled roadway we scurried, turning right and left as the directional signs indicated (Ms. Garmin was useless here).  “Visitor Parking” was spotted, and we pulled into the small space allotted, near what appeared to be a residential structure.  Our host, Stu Harrison, was waiting for us on the sidewalk.  We were the only guests scheduled for the morning tour.  Stu loaded us up in his all-terrain buggy and drove through the hillside vineyards, some with producing vines and others with younger plants needing a few more years before yielding useable fruit.  Existing buildings scattered about the property from the previous owner’s viticultural venture were still being utilized by Mondavi, until the new winery facility could be completed.  We visited the site of this forthcoming complex, but the structures were in their infancy.  Stu indicated that it would be completed in about six months, yet from the very few people working that day, my construction experience dictated otherwise.  Afterward, we drove back to the tasting room for sampling the 2009 juice.


The quaint-looking tasting room was beautifully appointed, with tile and stone features for a comfortable home-like setting.  Hilltop views of the impressive property were outside each window.  We sat down at a wooden table, where place settings had been arranged like a royal banquet.  There was a new bottle of the 2009 Proprietary Red opened and breathing.  We sat and swirled our full pours, as Stu discussed the new wine’s attributes.  The taste was impressive, enough that the other guys purchased 6 packs of this “buck and a half, plus” offering before finishing their first glass.  I had already committed to a few bottles from Magid, but I did note that as nice as this vintage emerged in the glass, my 2005 had been remarkably better.  Thus, I realized that my 2007 and 2008 holdings (highly rated by Robert Parker) were going to be phenomenal. 


My wine buddies had all been converted.  It was inevitable.  This Mondavi venture has (in my humble opinion) topped every winery in the history of the entire family, including Opus.  Sensing that he “had us at hello,” Stu opted to treat us to the entire bottle.  And, we left nary a drop.


Slowly we departed down the graveled roadways which led out of the property.  It was time for something in our stomachs other than the blessings of the grape.  The Soda Canyon Store on Silverado Trail became our destination.  We ordered sandwiches from their Deli and retired to the picnic tables overlooking the famous “drainage ditch gulch” for a leisurely meal. 


Our next stop was back up Sage Canyon Rd. for our rookie’s introduction to the impressive vineyards and winery of Kuleto Estate.  The roadway up the mountain was a challenge, as usual.  We hoped that Bob’s first experience there would be as memorable as each of ours had been.  And for him, possibly it was, but the employees who now were in charge of hosting the tours and tastings were several notches below what the other three of us had experienced in the past.  The only wines offered were primarily their inexpensive products, leaving us veterans with the feeling that this would be our final visit.  Possibly their awful habit of collecting tour groups of tanked lushes for a large group procession had taken its toll on us.   Kindly stated, it was not our favorite stop of the trip.


The drive back to the house was relatively silent.  We were pooped and in need of some down-time before our dinner.  Dave had successfully contacted his Howell Mountain friend, Mike Beatty, who was available to meet us at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (California Bistro fare), similar to our last trip.  He joined us with a mature 1997 Dunn Cabernet.  We brought along the 2007 Chase Zinfandel, purchased the day before.  Mike, being a Zin grower and former winemaker, seemed impressed, touting its “intense varietal character” (a joke, poking fun of the all too numerous self-proclaimed wine experts in Napa).  The jovial mood of the evening progressed nicely until Dave asked our waitress if she thought it funny that so many California blondes these days go to the trouble of dying their roots a different color.  As a hush of silence came upon us, Dave came to the instant realization that his off-color observation was unfavorably received.  Fortunately, our girl had “thick skin,” and we believe that only Dave’s starter and entrée got tainted with… goodness only knows.  It was entertaining listening to Mike’s never-ending tales of a grower’s life in Napa Valley. 


Our trip back to the vineyard house marked the end of yet another successful adventure for our group.  Bob was delighted at how much fun it had been, and thanked me for making all the arrangements.  I let him think that it had been quite a task, and for some it might have been.  Yet for me, twas just an expression of love for my good friends and this fascinating viticultural community.




Storybook Mountain Vineyards



Continuum Estate



Soda Canyon Store



Kuleto Estate



Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen


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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