Napa is home to some of the most remarkable wineries in the world. Some are large -- producing more than 100,000 cases per year, and some are small -- producing fewer than 5,000 cases per year. Many of these operations are family-owned, while larger entities and corporations own other brands. But like many businesses -- and make no mistake, making wine is definitely a business -- larger corporations are making significant acquisitions, buying up family-owned wineries in Napa Valley and throughout the world.
Next week Part two of three: Homespun family-owned wines
Now, I have nothing against corporate-owned wineries. Many of them are very dedicated to producing quality wines, and I have written about many excellent wines made by corporate-owned wineries in this column throughout the years. But there is something uniquely charming about family-owned wineries. Somehow, these family-run enterprises seem a bit more intimate. There is something more personal about these wineries, particularly if you are fortunate enough to meet with the family behind the label. And so it was that Cindy and I recently found ourselves in Napa Valley, in search of family-owned wineries, both large and small. Our stay began with the pleasant and delightful accommodations offered at the Wine Country Inn & Gardens, located just outside downtown St. Helena.
Ned and Marge Smith had the idea to build a bed and breakfast inn, a la New England. They visited classic inns of that region and decided they wanted to replicate the casual comfort these inns were known for. In addition to the antiques and local artists featured in the charming breakfast area, most rooms are adorned with fireplaces and balconies or patios that afford great views of the surrounding vineyards and gardens. My favorite amenity is the complimentary car service that will take guests to most restaurants in the valley and then pick them up, affording passengers the luxury of enjoying wine with dinner.
Our first day began with Tim Milos, the winemaker for Hidden Ridge Vineyards. Surrounded by gnarled oak and Manzanita forests on the southern and western slopes of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas mountain range, Hidden Ridge Vineyard is so remote only heavy-duty four-wheel-drive vehicles can reach it. Fortunately, Tim had the truck for the drive up the rugged location where the 55-acre vineyard was developed and planted by husband-and-wife team Casidy Ward and Lynn Hofacket. The Oklahoma natives purchased the property in 1991 as a location for a home in the country. However, the site ultimately proved a better choice for grapes than for people, and they found their Cabernet Sauvignon thrived on the otherwise inhospitable mountain slopes at elevations ranging from 900 to 1,700 feet.
After six years of developing the vineyard, Hofacket and Ward began selling their cabernet fruit in 2000. In 2001, the couple began to make small batches of wine with their mountain fruit and the Hidden Ridge label was born. Today, production is up to 3,600 cases, with all of the fruit dedicated for the Hidden Ridge Vineyard label.
At $45, the 2006 Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma is one of the most remarkable bottles of wine out of California I have had the pleasure to sample. It possesses extraordinary elegance, with an expansive nose of black tea, currants, bramble and hints of vanilla. There is purity and depth on the palate, with flavors of blackberry, dark plum and clove. Additional notes of mocha and melted licorice glide in on the plush finish, buoyed by sweet tannins that provide excellent structure now and suggest the ability to age it for another 10-plus years.
Our next stop was the Frank Family Vineyards, located in the former Kornell Champagne Cellars on the site of the historic Larkmead winery in Calistoga. Longtime Disney executive Rich Frank and his wife, Connie, own this operation. In 1992, Rich received a midnight phone call from longtime friend and Napa Valley winery owner Koerner Rombauer, who told him that the Larkmead property was for sale. Twenty-four hours later, Rich and Koerner bought the winery. In January 2007, Rich Frank and his family purchased Rombauer's share and assumed total control of Frank Family Vineyards. Today, it is truly a family affair.
We had the pleasure of tasting through the Frank Family portfolio with winemaker Todd Graff, who joined the winery in 2003. I really liked the 2008 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35), where scents of white peach, roasted nuts and brioche combine on the fragrant bouquet. Mouth-filling flavors of apple, nectarine and pear fill out the front of the palate while notes of lemon and toasty oak round out the lush finish. Subtle hints of vanilla add just the right accent, thanks to a judicious use of oak -- the wine was barrel-fermented in one-third new oak, one-third once-used oak and one-third twice-used oak. I was equally impressed with the Napa Valley Zinfandel ($38) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), which both represent good values for quality Napa wines.