Our first full day in Napa began earlier than the rest, as we had to head up to Yountville’s V Marketplace to find our waiting trolley. The Napa Valley Wine Trolley has a motorized San Francisco trolley that takes guests on an open-air journey through the valley. While you can select the tour which visits four vineyards, Mom and I opted for the one that took us to only three. Before you get too disappointed and scratch your head, “Why wouldn’t they want to go to more?!” check this out: our first stop was Castello di Amorosa, a full-scale Tuscan medieval castle built in Calistoga, where we took a tour of various rooms within the castle, the caves, and even the authentic torture chamber! We couldn’t pass that opportunity up, so we didn’t mind only hitting up three. Allow me to take you on a mini-tour:
A medieval castle in California? Yep, and no expense was spared in the making of this functional castle and vineyard over 20 years ago by Dario Sattui (from the V Sattui family – wine runs in his blood). Dario had over 1 million authentic bricks flown over from Italy to build this castle, with the materials alone costing over $32 million! You can see in every detail, including accurate renditions of varied architectural styles, the labor of love of this man in creating an experience for himself and his guests.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve never heard of this Castello di Amorosa” before, that may be because they intentionally have a limited harvest, all hand-picked, so that they have better control over the quality and overall production. Because of that, they don’t produce the quantities that many other vineyards do (like their neighbors, Sterling Vineyards, who sell millions of bottles of wine), so they sell direct to consumer.
There’s a beautiful fresco, hand-painted by a pair of brothers, in the grand dining hall which also depicts V Sattui himself, an homage to Dario’s ancestry, and two throne-like chairs donated by Disney after the Adam Sandler movie, Bedtime Stories, was filmed on set.
The wines are all made using a bladder press, like I mentioned in the previous Napa post about Gloria Ferrer, so it keeps the seeds in tact, which are then used to make estate grapeseed oil. Getting to the fun part: we toured the wine caves, with walls literally flowing with wine, as there’s no way a forklift or any big machinery could fit down there to complete the barreling/aging and bottling processes. Our tour guide, Owen, took us down for an actual barrel tasting of the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was such a special treat. Maybe it’s just me, but just the thought of tasting wine that’s still going through its perfection process gives me goosebumps – I relish in the fact that I’m tasting something before it’s ready for primetime, and I feel so intimately in tune with the process and like I have a backstage pass.
The other fun fact I learned about Castello’s barrels is that they’re a ‘used once and done’ kind of operation. Every single barrel that is used by them comes as a new, French oak barrel. Many of their wines are aged for 24+ months, and as oak barrels age themselves, they start to lose their nut/spice/toasty characteristics they once had as brand new barrels. Because of that, Castello won’t reuse barrels so that there’s consistency in the flavors they impart on the wines. Makes for a more expensive process, but I can completely appreciate where they’re coming from, and I think the quality and care shines through in their wines.
As far as what we tasted during the official tasting part of the tour, which was done in private rooms in the caves, we got a great sampling of their wines. Owen allowed us to choose which wines we wanted to taste, but he also provided some recommendations. Mom and I chose different ones so we could maximize the number of wines we tasted (a tactic we employed throughout our trip).
I think my favorite was their Merlot, quickly followed by their dry Gewürztraminer and the Il Brigante red blend. There was also a sweet wine – I know, I know, definitely not my M.O. – called La Fantasia which was actually pretty good. Owen recommended we pour it over ice cream….though I couldn’t try it on-site, I have no doubt that would be a delicious dessert with a slightly sweet red wine (see picture below). I might need to order some.
As far as pricing goes for this winery, I’d say their wines will generally run you between $26 and $42, though there are some reserve bottles that are nearly double that price!
Overall, this experience was nearly magical, and was a fantastic way to start our trolley excursion. I’d definitely recommend this tour and tasting to anyone visiting the area!
But of course, all tastings must come to an end. A quick trip through their winery shop and a jaunt past their farm animals (yep, goats, chickens, peacocks, and more!) back to the trolley, and we were ready for stop #2.
Named after the Greek mythological creature, Pegasus (with a French twist), Clos Pegase very much has a theme going on. Statues grace the property, both outside and in, and the architectural design by Michael Graves is just stunning. It’s both stately and majestic while being peaceful and serene….a sanctuary, indeed.
The story, as I recall, goes like this: Jan Shrem was working in the publishing industry in the US, but took his talents to Japan, where he opened his own publishing company. It was in Japan that he met his love, Mitsuko, and the two began a life together and family, traveling from Japan to France and, finally, back to the states. The Shrem family retired to Napa Valley and, using the knowledge he gained while studying oenology in France, Jan established this winery in 1983. Michael Graves, a widely sought after and acclaimed architect known for his postmodern styles, was selected to create the winery building.
This winery has four separate estate vineyards, and spans over 450 acres across Napa Valley. A lot of wineries, I found, actually have their estate vineyards sprinkled across the region. Why? I think it’s two-fold (at least). By planting grapes in different soils and locations, a winemaker can see which yields the best fruit and flavors. It also serves as an opportunity to combine the unique flavors from the varied terroir to create a powerhouse of a wine to showcase the overall flavors offered. That’s not to say single-vineyard wines are not powerhouses, because they definitely can be!
Okay enough chat, onto the wines!
This was a bit of an interesting tasting, as we were walking around and also served lunch. I would say the experience didn’t allow me to be quite as mindful about my tasting as I tried to be at other places, but it was a great way to knock out a lot of things. At any rate, we started with their 2016 Estate Rosé which is a red blend of over 8 varietals, though is primarily made from zinfandel. It was nice and light, refreshing after having been on the open-air trolley. An easy drinker, this wine was followed by a walk directly from their large cask room to the wine caves – no stairs needed, as we walked straight into the side of a hill. Unlike at Castello, where we had to descend stairs which required them to get creative about how to facilitate their wine-making processes, Clos Pegase is able to move their barrels and materials around the caves easily, so all the work is completed there. While in the caves, we were poured the 2017 Estate Sauvignon Blanc among the statue of Bacchus, the Roman God of Wine…he looks quite nefarious!
I’m finding that I’m enjoying the sauvignon blancs more than I used to. Chalk it up to the warmer months, maybe, but I also think I like the citrus and herby nature these wines tend to have. This was followed by a pour of the 2014 Estate Pinot Noir and finished with the 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I did find these to be great accompaniments to the food we were served (from The Girl & The Fig), though I’m not sure they surpassed how much I liked the Castello di Amorosa wines.
Before I take you to the next one…Clos Pegase has a special Game of Thrones wine, but I think you can only get it on-site. 🙂
The oldest of the three vineyards we visited on the trolley tour, Whitehall Lane Winery was established in 1979. What became known as the “Merlot House”, Whitehall Lane originally grew grapes and gave all of their fruit to the Charles Krug winery. You’ll find that this happens quite a bit still, for a variety of reasons. But at some point, Whitehall lane was like, “Hey, we make a pretty good grape, let’s just make our own wine!” So they did.
This tour did seem a bit more rushed and slightly more discombobulated – perhaps because our group had already hit up two wineries, or perhaps because we had a couple interrupters in our group. 😉 Patrick, our guide at Whitehall Lane, took us through their stainless steel vat room, and walked us past their barrels to an outdoor patio for our tasting. We started with the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc from Rutherford (north Napa), followed shortly after by the same vintage Chardonnay from Carneros (south Napa). We then tasted the 2014 Merlot, which is 94% merlot and 6% cabernet sauvignon. A lot of vineyards will actually toss in a bit of cabernet sauvignon or franc or even a viognier, to add some complexity and balance to the wines. I think that whole math behind the madness of figuring out the perfect percentage of each varietal is amazing.
Here, we learned a bit about the droughts and what that might do to a year’s crop. As you can imagine, droughts can create some very small fruit, as they don’t get enough water to plump up. But some argue that it can be these drought years which produce wines with more character and flavor, on account of the grapes having to fight their way to stay, so they are strong and bold, not to mention without the extra water the flavors become a bit more concentrated.
During our final tasting from this vineyard, the 2014 Leonardini Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (100% cabernet blended from 3 different vineyard sites), one of our fellow tour-goers asked the question, “So you know how you say that there’s all these flavors like blueberry and cherry in wine? Do you ever just, you know, throw in a handful of these fruits to bring that out more?” The overwhelming answer is NO, they do not. Any flavors you pick up in a wine are a result of a variety of factors, but nothing like adding other fruits and actual spices. The soil, climate, region, farming practice, aging, etc. all contribute to what the ultimate flavor and bouquet of a wine will be. We had a little bit more excitement from said tour-goer when she broke her glass:
But let’s not cry over spilled wine…there’s always another glass and another wine to try.
After the trolley tour
We had such a phenomenal experience on the trolley tour, taking us to some great vineyards and getting a good sense of what California’s wine country has to offer. When we arrived back at Yountville at the end of the tour, we visited the shops in the V Marketplace, where we found a really cute shop that had wine-themed home decor and also some local lavender products (I’m a sucker for lavender). While talking to the shop owner, he asked if we’d be interested in going to another winery and, because this was a trip of new experiences for us, we said “sure!” Lo and behold, we found ourselves about a mile away at Vinatieri Wine.
Some might say, “That name sounds familiar.” If you watch football, Adam Vinatieri was an NFL player for several years, and he’s the son of the winemaker, Pat. Small world people, and it only keeps getting smaller.
At any rate, Vinatieri literally means “wine of the earth,” so it’s almost as if this man was destined to create a fabulous wine. We arrived to find ourselves seated in his personal kitchen, while Pat shared the story of how he got into the wine business and why he likes to keep things small. He’s only a word-of-mouth type of shop, so he keeps his production small, which makes experiencing it a true privilege.
Pat’s hospitality was top-notch, taking us on his patio for a breathtaking view while drinking his cabernets over the course of three hours. He focuses on cabernet sauvignon as it’s such a signature grape not only in the European wines he loves so much, but also to Napa Valley. Not only did we hear about his life and his passion for wine, but he also wanted to know about us. When I told him that I’d soon be celebrating my first wedding anniversary, he pulled out a bottle of wine and signed it for Sean and me to enjoy on the occasion:
While I loved every bit of the trolley tour, our decision to say “yes” to unexpected opportunities throughout the trip made it even more memorable. It’s those impromptu things that can take you slightly out of your comfort zone, but can really present amazing experiences. Vinatieri will always be one of those special moments I have with my mom, and I know that I will never forget it.
Can’t wait to share Day 3 with you soon! Cheers!!