A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure: From St. Helena to San Francisco

A Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon enjoys a panoramic Npa Valley view from the winery’s Spring Mountain estate (Trevor Felch/KQED)

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  1. Charles Krug Winery
  2. Smith-Madrone Vineyards
  3. Oakville Grocery
  4. Shafer Vineyards
  5. Far Niente Winery

Charles Krug Winery

2800 Main St.
St. Helena, CA 94574

Estate vines at Charles Krug Winery, looking at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus
Estate vines at Charles Krug Winery, looking at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus (Trevor Felch/KQED)

The trip’s earliest start and most rushed visit (with just one taste because of timing) came at one of California wine history’s true icons: Charles Krug. Contrary to what most people think, THIS is actually the winery owned by the Mondavi family. Robert Mondavi Winery is now part of Constellation Brands.

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You won’t hear much at Charles Krug about the infamous family split where brothers Peter and Robert had various disagreements about the direction of the winery, the style of a winery (with nitpicks like how Robert wanted all French oak) and how the winery’s money should be spent. After the split, Robert created his namesake winery further south towards Oakville and Peter ran Charles Krug.

Several Mondavi family members still live on the Charles Krug property, which stayed that name because its original owner (Charles Krug) wrote in the land grant (it was originally given to him as a wedding dowry) that it shall never change. Hence the confusion for many wine drinkers, myself included, how Charles Krug is the real Mondavi domain. Got it all? Yes, this family is one of the most famous and confusing in all of wine.

The signature burgundy painted barrels resting at Charles Krug Winery
The signature burgundy painted barrels resting at Charles Krug Winery (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Everywhere you look on the property across Highway 29 from the Culinary Institute of America Greystone complex is history and something majestic: gorgeous valley vistas, barrels with red stripes that are painted to look like they’re bleeding wine, and a striking Howard Backen redesigned carriage house that John fell in love with since he does lots of woodwork at his homes.

I can’t vouch for the quality of all 50,000 cases the winery produces, but our one taste was a phenomenal 2015 'Generations’ Bordeaux blend.

Also consider: Freemark Abbey, Inglenook, Ackerman Family Vineyards/Heritage House

Smith-Madrone Vineyards

4022 Spring Mountain Rd.
St. Helena, CA 94574

Some of Smith-Madrone’s exceptional wines including a 2016 Chardonnay, 2013 Cook’s Flat Reserve and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
Some of Smith-Madrone’s exceptional wines including a 2016 Chardonnay, 2013 Cook’s Flat Reserve and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Luckily, I had been to this rustic Spring Mountain legend once before, so I already knew how many twists and turns were coming up en route to stop 2 for the day. You will get lost your first time going to Smith Madrone. This time, we weren’t lost, but we did get greeted by a giant fallen tree in the process of being removed, so there was some off-roading needed. Speaking of off-roading, assistant winemaker Sam Smith whisked us away almost immediately in an off-road four-wheeler and zoomed us all over the dry-farmed estate vineyards, through forests, by streams, and almost everywhere yielded panoramic valley views.

Sam is the son of Stuart Smith, who founded the winery in 1971 and runs it with his brother Charles, who serves as the winemaker. Sam is also the most talented balancer of a wine glass while driving through potholes I have ever seen.

John and Smith-Madrone Vineyard & Winery’s Assistant Winemaker Sam Smith discuss wine and off-road vehicles in the redwood forests of Spring Mountain
John and Smith-Madrone Vineyard & Winery’s Assistant Winemaker Sam Smith discuss wine and off-road vehicles in the redwood forests of Spring Mountain (Trevor Felch/KQED)

This is old Napa, where there is no glitz, the Cabernet Sauvignon still hovers around the $50 mark, and it’s one of three wineries still growing Riesling, which way back in the day was a primary grape of Napa Valley. Smith-Madrone’s Cook’s Flat Reserve is their answer to the Screaming Eagles of Napa Valley, with extensive layers and giant, rich red and black fruit notes. It is priced accordingly since the Smiths finally realized they needed to adapt a little bit to the Napa Valley of the 2010s.

When tourists and locals alike ask about the Napa Valley winery to visit — you know, the secret one with gorgeous views, no pretention, excellent wine, no wine club hard sell, huge character — this is that winery.

3 wines to try: 2015 Riesling, 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 Cook’s Flat Reserve

Also consider: Stony Hill, Green & Red, Tres Sabores

Lunch: Oakville Grocery

7856 St. Helena Hwy, Oakville

A Napa Valley daytime staple. On weekends, it’s Bay Bridge rush hour traffic-like packed. Luckily, on a Monday in early December we were almost alone. The bread for the sandwiches is shockingly pedestrian, so opt for the prepared salads and any dessert.

Also consider: La Calenda, Bouchon, Redd Wood

Shafer Vineyards

6154 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558

Barrels resting in Shafer Vineyards’ sprawling caves
Barrels resting in Shafer Vineyards’ sprawling caves (Trevor Felch/KQED)

John figured out the “surprise winery” of the trip secretly long before seeing the hillside. That hillside, nestled behind Shafer Vineyards a little off the Silverado Trail in what is considered the Stags Leap District, is probably the most famous “hillside” in Napa Valley and thankfully just missed being struck by the 2017 fires, whose damage you can still clearly see further up the hill towards Atlas Peak. It’s the hillside of “Hillside Select”, one of Napa Valley’s definitive wines.

I had seen in John’s cellar spreadsheet that he had some Shafer, though it wasn’t Hillside Select, so I figured this would be a fun surprise. Somehow, he already knew it would be Shafer, perhaps because he might not have any other Napa Valley wines? Anyhow, what I didn’t know is that he and Meg’s mom had tried to visit Shafer before and failed since they couldn’t just walk in.

Reservation in hand, our host Andy Demsky asked if we were “winery toured out” and we pretty much were. But, when you’re at a place of Shafer’s renown, you must see what you can see. So we breezed through the gorgeous winery, saw winemaker Elias Fernandez in action doing some careful cleaning and sampling, then tasted what was easily one of the trip’s finest lineups.

The celebrated Hillside Select (far right) and its excellent peers at Shafer Vineyards
The celebrated Hillside Select (far right) and its excellent peers at Shafer Vineyards (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Like at Peter Michael and Kosta Browne, those lofty Wine Spectator scores didn’t lie in this instance. Shafer is deservedly a Napa Valley legend, 30,000 cases strong, and really doing a fantastic job creating big wines that also boast excitement. One reason for that is the fun use of different oaks in the wine. Winery president Doug Shafer calls the different types of barrels “the spice rack” with so many unique options that can add a slightly new angle to high caliber grapes, like spices might work for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. It was an eye-opening analogy to winemaking for us.

3 wines to try: 2015 One Point Five, 2015 Relentless, 2014 Hillside Select

Also consider: Chappellet, Robert Sinskey, Frog’s Leap

Far Niente Winery

1350 Acacia Dr.
Oakville, CA 94562

Far Niente’s predecessor — a 1977 bottle of Nob Hill Cellars by Far Niente founder Gil Nickel who bought an apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco with winemaking equipment, which started off his illustrious wine career
Far Niente’s predecessor — a 1977 bottle of Nob Hill Cellars by Far Niente founder Gil Nickel who bought an apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco with winemaking equipment, which started off his illustrious wine career (Trevor Felch/KQED)

At long last, we arrived at the final winery of the trip. Of course, we were a bit leisurely with the exceptional Shafer wines, so we joined our Far Niente tour as they were strolling through the endless ornate barrel rooms and cellars under the estate. Yes, this was our one public tour of the trip and by now we kind of just wanted to experience a winery as a tourist.

Wineries from Boonville to Sebastopol
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And so we toured through Far Niente’s own Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, including a regal 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon which was our oldest vintage of the trip, and Far Niente’s sibling EnRoute Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley, déjà vu from our first day of the trip. Not surprisingly, I was the only guest taking notes, something that reminded me that while it was a Monday work assignment for me, Napa Valley for these other guests from the likes of Miami and Orange County was a truly special vacation experience. They wanted that wine. They wanted the spectacular gardens and winery luxury, something Far Niente does particularly well at its Oakville estate.

Though it dates back to 1885 when a forty-niner founded the estate, Far Niente fell into disrepair because of Prohibition, but was resuscitated by the late Oklahoma based nursery owner (and later vintner) Gil Nickel. Hence, that’s why the gardens and exteriors of the property are particularly spectacular at this winery where landscape and wine were intertwined in the DNA of its longtime proprietor.

We closed with a sip of our only sweet wine of the trip, the Dolce late harvest Sauternes style Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc sourced from the southern edge of the Napa Valley. Fittingly, it was our final sip of the trip and a sweet way to send us back to the big city.

3 wines to try: 2012 Dolce, 2016 EnRoute Pinot Noir “Les Pommiers,” 2016 estate Cabernet Sauvignon (and 2011 and 2009 if you can find them)

Also consider: Joseph Phelps, Corison, Hess Collection

Our trip prelude dinner was at the intimate Potrero Flats wine geek favorite (and a worthy destination for delicious seasonal cooking) The Morris (2501 Mariposa St., San Francisco).

After Far Niente and a delightful sluggish rush hour trip across the Bay Bridge back to San Francisco, we closed with Robert Biale Zinfandel, Negronis, and the indulgent jazz club/supper club delight that is Bix (56 Gold St., San Francisco) near Jackson Square. It was indeed a fitting celebration to celebrate a special week.

Total Mileage: 542

Total Wineries: 31

Sips/Tastes: No idea

Did we still like wine afterwards? You bet

Are we still talking? Yes

Sounds like a success to me. And now we’re bringing Wine Bootcamp to Burgundy in early March. This time, though, we’ll both be the rookies and it’s significantly harder to lasso together an itinerary. I sure wish somebody had written that Wine Bootcamp article for Burgundy already. Hopefully this one for Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties will be of use for you.

Cheers!

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Head back to Wine Bootcamp Central for the full guide of wineries and eateries we visited.

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