Friday, March 22, 2013

Beringer Vineyards – A Historic Monument in St. Helena, California

This past weekend I ventured out into the Napa Valley again in hopes of taking more pictures of Mustard Flower laden vineyards. But, it seems they’ve all been mowed, plowed under or most the golden weeds have died. This is unusual for most wineries and vineyards wait until the end of March to do so. So, I decided to revisit the very first winery I ever visited in the Napa Valley back in the year 2000 - Beringer Vineyards. That was before I started journaling my wine country travels and doing photography.


When first-time visitors to the Napa Valley ask me for recommendations, Beringer Vineyards is usually in the top five – especially for people who are somewhat new to wine tasting. My reason for recommending Beringer is because of its historical significance, the opportunity to learn about wine during a tour and it is a higher production winery that consistently maintains high quality wines. in the Nap Valley back in 2000 - Beringer Vineyards. Having been to 223 wineries since then it was a real joy to see and taste this one again! I ever visited in the Nap Valley back in 2000 - Beringer Vineyards. Having been to 223 wineries since then it was a real joy to see and taste this one again! I ever visited in the Nap Valley back in 2000 - Beringer Vineyards. Having been to 223 wineries since then it was a real joy to see and taste this one again!

Beringer Vineyards was founded in 1875 by German emigrants Jacob and Frederick Beringer who crossed the Atlantic in 1868. Recognizing the valley’s potential for making premium wines, Frederick and Jacob built a gravity-flow winery and steam-powered grape crusher, then enlisted the help of Chinese laborers to hand-dig tunnels within the hills of Napa Valley.  Today, these caves continue to be used to cellar and age wine in a stable ideal temperature 58-degree environment and relative humidity.  

The Beringer family sold the Beringer name and winery to Nestlé in 1971. This well-known candy producer then sold off the company in 1996. The winery was then owned by Foster’s Group from 2000 to 2011.  Currently it is owned by Treasury Wine Estates, an Australian based company, who also own other well-known Napa Valley wineries such as Etude, St. Clement, and Stags Leap.


Today Beringer Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley and is registered as a California Historical Landmark. One of the tasting rooms is located the landmark Rhine House Victorian home and visitors can also take a tour of the wine-aging tunnels and Old Stone Winery that was built in the late 1800’s. 

While visiting I sampled the following wines:


My first sample was the 2011 Private Reserve Chardonnay. The wine when poured was way too cold which really hampered the aromas. So, after a lot of swirling and cupping of the glass to warm it up I picked up pronounced aromas of green apples, pears, marshmallows and a hint of butter and nuts. On the palate it is medium bodied with crisp (medium+) acidity, it is well balanced and has a prolonged marshmallow and nutty finish. This is a Classic California Chardonnay and usually I find that wines that match this profile to sell for around $45, but this one sells for $38 a bottle so I brought one home.

My second pour was the 2007 Single Vineyard Rancho del Oso Cabernet Sauvignon. On the nose this wine exudes big fresh bing cherries, boysenberries, blackberries, and a just hint of graphite, cloves and oak. On the palate it is fruit forward, medium bodied and very approachable with supple velvety tannins and medium (+) acidity. Everything in this wine is well balanced with no one trait dominating the other. This is definitely a “drink now” wine and I doubt it will improve much with age. It sells for $100 a bottle so if I were to buy one I would want to have a special occasion on my calendar in mind to open it soon. But I think there are many comparable wines in the valley in the $50 - $60 range.

The third wine I tasted was the 2006 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This Cab is radically different than the previous one. Whereas the Rancho del Oso was a no-brainer easy-drinking wine this one causes you to stop and think about it. On the nose I picked up multi-layers of earth, smoke, beef-jerky, teriyaki and it has the umami thing going on. After more swirling the fruit aromas appear with notes of blackberries, cassis, dark cherries and a hint of mocha. Even though it is a year older than the previous Cab, on the palate the tannins have more grip and the wine feels full-bodied and there are additional notes of black licorice. While think the average consumer might prefer the previous wine, I enjoyed this one more as it was a lot more thought-provoking and it had a lot of character.   At retail this wine sells for $135 for a 750 ml bottle but was on sale at 50% off. They also currently have ½ bottle 375 ml bottles that are on sale for $32.50. I was really tempted to pick one up.


The final pour was the 2007 Nightingale, a Sauterne-style wine that is a blend of 67% Sémillon and 33% Sauvignon Blanc. To make this wine they introduce Botrytis in an artificially controlled environment to simulate the natural conditions of Sauterne France. On the nose I picked up aromas of apricots, honey, graham crackers, orange blossoms and honeysuckle. It is medium bodied with a slight oily viscosity and yet it isn’t syrupy as it has good acidity and finishes clean. A very delicious wine that is well balanced and a really good facsimile of a Sauterne, but it doesn’t quite have the same acidity and prolonged finish of the genuine article. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.


To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Beringer Vineyards

2000 Main Street

St. Helena, CA 94574

Phone: 1-707-967-4412; 1-866-708-9463

Monday, March 18, 2013

Venge Vineyards – Mustard Flowers in the Vineyard Calistoga, California


As you are traveling north bound on the Silverado Trail and heading into Calistoga, if you blink at the wrong time you might just drive right on without noticing Venge Vineyards. The winery and tasting room is far off the road, tucked up against the Palisades Mountains. Their road sign is barely noticeable. In fact, it was only because they had an abundance of mustard flowers that I slowed to take note of who owned the vineyards. Although they are not generally open to the public and require advanced reservations, I have learned that often times people cancel their reservations and so an opening becomes available or because I am a “party of one” they’ll fit me in. It never hurts to call and ask if they can give you an on-the-spot reservation. It was about 10:30 a.m. when I called and they squeezed me in for a noon appointment. So, I went and had lunch at Buster’s BBQ in Calistoga (great food at reasonable prices!) and returned at 12 p.m.


The Venge (pronounced “ven-ghee”) family has farmed grapes in Napa Valley for nearly a half-century. The family business began in the early 1900’s when Knud Venge traveled across the Atlantic from Denmark to the United States. Afterwards his son, Per Venge, founded Vencom Imports an importer of Western European fine wines and spirits. Then in the 1960’s Per’s son, Nils Venge, went on to study viticulture at UC Davis. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Grape Vine Viticulture, Nils took a job at Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga. Then in 1971 he was recruited by Villa Mount Eden as their first winemaker. While at Villa Mount Eden, Nils and his father-in-law bought a 17 acre Cabernet Vineyard in Oakville and they supplied grapes to Villa Mount Eden, which is now surrounded by other stellar wineries such as Silver Oak Cellars, Opus One and Groth Vineyards. 


In 1982 Nils Venge became partnered with Dennis Groth to help form Groth Vineyard.  Then in 1985 his craftsmanship as a winemaker became well known as their Cabernet Sauvignon became the first Californian wine to receive a perfect score, receiving a 100 point rating from Robert Parker. A decade later Nils formed Venge Vineyards.


Nils’ son, Kirk Venge, was the next in the family line to further the family business as he took an interest in winemaking at an early age growing up around the winery. In 1998 he earned his degree in Viticulture and Enology at the UC Davis. He then honed his craft during summer internships as the experimental winemaker for Mumm, Napa Valley. After graduating he further developed his skills during a harvest in New Zealand and then spent time travelling the great wine regions of Europe. Ten years later Kirk acquired full ownership of Venge Vineyards and today he continues the family’s trade in the Napa Valley.

In 2008 Kirk purchased a 12.5 acre vineyard and moved operations to the newly acquired Rossini Ranch in the foothills of the Palisades Mountains in Calistoga. The ranch then became the estate winery and tasting room.  Here visitors can sample their wines at the ranch house seated inside the tasting room or while lounging on the deck that surrounds the front of the house and overlooks the vineyards. While visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first sample was the 2012 Juliana Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. This is, without a doubt, one of THE best California Sauv Blancs I have ever tasted. It has pronounced aromas of tropical fruits, mango, kiwi, and mandarin oranges. On the palate it is very crisp with medium ++ acidity, medium weight and a very prolonged finish. Unfortunately it is also THE most expensive Sauv Blancs I have ever tasted as it rolls in at $37 a bottle. I have never paid more than $30.

My second pour was the 2011 Maldanado Vineyard Chardonnay.  This wine has not undergone M/L but it was aged sur lie. On the nose I picked up subtle notes of popcorn, baked pears, melon, and tropical fruits. On the palate it is slightly creamy with medium+ weight and yet it maintains its crispness with medium+ acidity and all the flavors are harmoniously balanced. Before checking the price I had guessed it would be around $45 but was pleasantly surprised to find  it sells for $39 a bottle. If you like Chards that are not too austere but are also not a big butter ball this you’ll enjoy this wine!

The third wine I tasted was the 2011 Balcigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. Up front on the nose I picked up strawberry preserves, root beer, and dark earth. On the tail end it has additional aromas of cloves and a hint of pistachio nuts. On the palate it has significant weight for a Pinot (medium +), more spice and a long finish. If I was tasting this blind I would have thought it was from Southern California, perhaps Santa Barbara County rather than the Russian River. It is a very nice wine but a bit steep at $58 a bottle.

The fourth pour was the 2011 Scout’s Honor Proprietary Red, Napa Valley. It is a blend of 70% Zinfandel, 13% Peite Sirah, 11% Charbono and 6% Syrah. The Zinfandel from the Moss Creek Vineyard in the Cappelle Valley in the eastern side of Napa Valley. The Charbonno is sourced from 60 year old vines in Frediani Vineyard in Calistoga. The Petite Sirah comes from the Baranek Vineyard in Clarksburg and the Syrah is from the Muhlner Vineyard in Napa’s Chiles Valley. This was my favorite in the line-up. It is bright ruby red and stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it has pronounced aromas of strawberry and raspberry jam, Bing cherries, black olive, mint and it a hint of black pepper. On the palate it is luscious and fruit forward, full bodied with silky tannins, mouth-watering acidity and it definitely has the delicious factor in pleasing the palate. It is a complex and layered wine that is BIG and yet it is well balanced even though it has 15.3% alcohol. This wine sells for $38 a bottle and I brought one home.

The final wine was the 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. On the nose it has aromas of cassis, black currants, blackberries, plums, dark chocolate and black pepper – a classic Napa Valley Cab profile. On the palate it is has very firm tannins, it is full bodied, has bright acidity and it well balanced. On entry it is very approachable and “drink now” but it will undoubtedly improve over the next 5 years or so.  At $135 a bottle this wine has a lot of stiff competition in the valley and I’ve had similar Cabs in the $50 - $60 range.

Overall, I was very impressed with Venge Vineyards and out of the 123 wineries I have visited in the Napa Valley since the year 2000 it easily ranks in the top 20.


To see more pictures of Venge Vineyards, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Venge Vineyards

4708 Silverado Trail  

Calistoga, CA 94515

Phone: 1-707- 942-9100


Friday, March 15, 2013

Casa Nuestra Winery and Vineyards – Mustard Flowers and Old Vines in St. Helena, California

From a wine country photographer’s point of view, the ideal shot this time of year is that of a gnarly old vine surrounded by wild mustard flowers with clear blue skies in the back ground. This past weekend I struck gold at Casa Nuestra Winery and Vineyards as they have a 1.4 acre mustard flower laden vineyard with 50+ year old Chenin Blanc head pruned vines which were planted sometime around 1961. And, after a couple days of rain during the week, the weather was absolutely perfect!


Casa Nuestra (which means "Our House")  was founded by the Kirkham family in 1979. The winery and the general profile of their wines is sort of “old school.” In fact, the décor of the tasting room is done in a 1950’s -1960’s rock-n-roll motif and they play music from the era.
They produce about 2,000 cases a year including Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, as well as a dry Chenin Blanc, White Riesling, Petite Sirah, Charbono, French Colombard, and Rosado. They also produce a dry rose and two proprietary field blend red wines called Tinto. One is from their Oakville hillside vineyard which they acquired 1956. The other is from their vines in St. Helena which was planted in 1994 and is derived from cuttings from the original Oakville vineyard. These flag ship wines are labeled “Tinto St. Helena” and the one from the original Oakville vineyard is labeled “Tinto Classico.” All of the other grapes to produce Casa Nuestra’s wines are grown in the 22 acre St. Helena vineyard, some which were planted prior to 1960 and their farm is completely organic.

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first sample was the 2011 Dry Chenin Blanc, St. Helena Estate Vineyard. There is very little of this grape grown in California and most that I have tried tend to be fruity, soft and off-dry. This one is radically different. On the nose I picked up hints of melon, citrus, lemon, and apricots with some tropical fruit on the tail end. On the palate this wine is light bodied, razor sharp with crisp acidity (medium ++), it is slightly tart, and has a prolonged finish. I really loved this wine and brought one home, it sells for $30 a bottle.


My second pour was the 2011 Riesling, St. Helena Estate Vineyard. I was surprised to find Riesling being grown in St. Helena as it tends to be a cool climate grape and grown closer to the coast. But apparently they have found a cooler region of the valley against the hills. This wine displays aromas of apples, pineapples, pears, and a touch of honey. On the palate it is off-dry (1.5 R/S), medium bodied with only a hint of sweetness and it still maintains sufficient acidity. A nice wine for $24 a bottle.


The third wine I tasted was the 2008 Merlot, St. Helena Estate Vineyard. This wine is ruby red and it stains the glass when swirled. It has a big beautiful nose with pronounced aromas of plums, cherries, cocoa, a just hint of mint and black licorice. On the palate it has soft supple tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. The bouquet of this wine is more dramatic and has a bigger impact on the senses that it does on the palate. A nice wine for $38 a bottle.

The fourth pour was the 2009 Tinto, St. Helena Estate Vineyard. A filed blend of 8 different varietals which are harvested separately then co-fermented and blended prior to ageing. This is a dark wine with intense concentrated medium intense aromas of boysenberries, black cherries, a hint of earth, cassis and plums. On the palate it has firm gripping tannins (medium +), medium acidity and gives the impression of being seemingly “old world” in style. Another fine, sort of a non-Napa style of wine, that sells for $38 a bottle.

The fifth sample was not on the list, the 2009 “30 Year Commemoration” Tinto, Oakville. In comparison to the previous Tinto, this one is earthier, with aromas of dusty dark fruits, blackberry pie, and dark chocolate. This wine sells for $38 a bottle.


The final wine was the 2008 Petite Sirah, St. Helena Estate Vineyard. This is a BIG wine with intense aromas of boysenberries, plums, black licorice, cigar box and freshly cracked pepper. On the palate it is full bodied and has massive tannins. This is not a “sipping wine” as it either needs a steak to go with it or a few more years of ageing. This wine sells for $36 a bottle.


To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Casa Nuestra

3451 Silverado Trail North

Saint Helena, CA


Phone: 1-707-963-5783

Monday, March 11, 2013

Baldacci Family Vineyards – Stags Leap, Napa Valley California

After a few days of rain showers during the week we had a forecast of clear blue sunny skies for the weekend. So, I returned to the Napa Valley to visit a few more wineries with mustard flowers in the vineyards. My first stop was at Baldacci Family Vineyards located along the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District of the Napa Valley.


In 1997 Thomas and Brenda Baldacci purchased the 17-acre parcel of vineyard land and in 2003 they bought an additional 20 acres in the Carneros District. 
As descendents of Italian immigrants, the family is not knew to wine making as the family tradition goes back to 1916. Today they own 37 acres of estate vineyards, a state of the art winemaking facility and a unique wine cave built into the side of the hill in the volcanic soil.

After touring the wine caves I ventured into the small, quaint tasting room where I sampled the following wines:

The first pour was the 2010 Elizabeth Pinot Noir. For a Carneros Pinot this wine is dark and earthy with very dense and concentrated fruit. On the nose and palate it displays aromas of dried roses, dark cherries, strawberry preserves, cinnamon and a hint of spice. On the palate it is medium bodied with firm tannins that have a bit of grip on the gums, medium acidity. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.

The second sample was the 2009 IV Sons Fraternity, Napa Valley. A proprietary blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags’ Leap District, 28% Syrah and 24% Merlot from Carneros this one was my favorite in the line-up. It is very dark and earthy with pronounced layers of chocolate, plums, black cherries, cassis and boysenberries. The evolution of this wine is very interesting, the earth and chocolate first hit my senses but as I continued to swirl the glass the fruit aromas developed and then the earth return and then with more vigorous swirling more pronounced the fruit comes back. It is full bodied with medium refined tannins and mouth-watering acidity. I brought a bottle home for $40.

The third wine was the 2009 Black Label Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. This wine displays a classic and unmistakable Napa Valley profile with aromas of cassis, black currants, black cherries, black licorice and vanilla up front. With much swirling there are also underlying notes of herbs, and mocha. On the palate it is full bodied with BIG aggressive tannins that firmly grip your gums, medium (+) acidity and a medium (+) length finish. This young wine needs a few years of aging to be truly appreciated at its best. This wine sells for $65 a bottle.

The fourth pour was the 2009 Brenda’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District. On the nose I picked up cassis, blueberries, figs, and sweet pipe tobacco. This wine is more approachable in its youth than the previous Cab. It is full bodied with refined tannins, ample acidity and is very well balanced. A fantastic Cab but a major hit to the wallet at $105 a bottle.


To visit or for more information:

Baldacci Winery

6236 Silverado Trail

Napa, CA 94558

Phone: 1-707-944-9261


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Crocker & Starr Wines – Mustard Flowers and Hazy Skies in St. Helena, California

This past weekend the forecast for the Napa Valley was “overcast” which isn’t ideal for doing wine country photography. Puffy cotton ball clouds with blue in the background is fine, but hazy gray skies can make pictures and video seem gloomy and the color of the vineyards don’t “pop.” But, I decided to head up to the Napa Valley anyway and visit one of the valley’s ultra-premium wineries - Crocker & Starr. While visiting I met up with a friend I have kept in touch with but hadn’t seen in a while, Dawn Kavanagh. She is a chef by trade who serves as a host at Crocker and Starr, which has become an iconic cult wine producer. In fact, on episode #827 of the Wine Library TV Gary Vaynerchuk gave their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon 95+ points.

The winery was founded by Charlie Crocker and Pam Starr. Charlie is a San Francisco businessman who is a descendent of Charles Crocker (1822 –1888) who founded the Central Pacific Railroad. Prior to getting into the wine busyness Charlie founded, managed and grew two public technology companies - BEI Technologies and BEI Medical Systems. Pam Starr serves as co-owner, manager and winemaker. In 1984, prior to co-founding the winery she earned a degree in Fermentation Science University of California at Davis. She had worked in the wine business for 18 years serving at Edna Valley Vineyard, Carmenet Winery in Sonoma, then Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery in the Napa Valley. She also wine consulted for Adastra Vineyard in the Carneros, Gemstone Vineyard in Yountville and Garric Cellars of Calistoga, among others.

The winery originally was named Dowdell and Sons Winery which dates back 1870’s but it went out of business during the Prohibition. 

Then in 1971 Charlie purchased the dormant and undisturbed farmland, later planting Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon between 1978 and 1980. Then in 1997 Charlie partnered with Pam to establish Crocker and Starr, resurrecting the historic winemaking estate. 

They then began transitioning from conventional to organic farming of the 85 acres on which they grow five Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec). In the following year they planted Sauvignon Blanc in the warmer up-valley Crocker Vineyard and the cooler down-valley Hyde Las Trancas Vineyard. The fruit from this vineyard would go into the 2001 vintage which was released in 2002. Then in 1999 they had their first release of Cabernet Franc (1997 vintage). At the turn of the millennium they released the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon “Stone Place,” an estate Bordeaux-style blend. Soon they were receiving rave reviews by wine critics and in 2009 they moved into a restored 1918 farmhouse on the vineyard in St. Helena and opened their tasting room.

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

The 2011 Bridesmaid Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Bridesmaid is a joint project created by friends, Pam Starr and Drew Neiman, which produces value-priced wines ( Drew is an experienced winemaker who worked as the assistant winemaker for Kongsgaard and Arietta Cellars, and later the winemaker for Jacquelynn and Chateau Boswell. He has been a winemaker along with Pam Starr in Bridesmaid Wines since it’s beginning in 2005. This wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (72%) and Semillon (28%). The bouquet on this wine is prounouced with very aromas lemon zest, myer lemon and a hint of chalky minerality. On the palate it is easy and approachable, slightly creamy and yet it has ample acidity. It is medium (-) bodied and has a medium length finish. I prefer my Sauvignon Blancs to be razor sharp and crisp so this one is a little too soft for my palate. But it has an absolutely gorgeous nose and it is reasonably priced at $19 a bottle.

The second pour was the 2006 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc. This is an absolutely luscious wine with layers of blueberries, blackberries, mocha and a touch of earth on the nose. On the palate it is full bodied, round with silky tannins and additional notes of freshly cracked black pepper on a medium (+) length finish. This is probably one of the best California Cab Francs I have ever tasted but it is a bit pricey at $80 a bottle.

The third sample was the 2009 Casali Malbec. On the nose I picked up pronounced aromas of blueberries (or Boo Berry Cereal), cranberries and a hint of white pepper. When swirled, this wine is inky dark as it stains the glass when swirled. On the palate it is very delicious on entry, big and round with a silky refined tannins, a full-mouth feel and a long finish. Undoubtedly the best California Malbec I have ever tasted and one of the most expensive as it rolls in with price tag of $72 a bottle.

The fourth wine was the 2002 Syrah. There were only two vintages of this wine produced, the 2001 and the 2002. Sadly the vines were pulled to make room for more Sauvignon Blanc. The limited supply of the 2002 was “lost” and then a few cases were found. Though this wine is 11 years old, visually there are NO signs of aging as it is dark at the base and ruby and violet at the rim with no signs of bricking. On the nose it has pronounced blueberries and blackberries and on the palate it is very delicious with velvety tannins, youthful acidity with a medium length finish. I was very tempted to bring one home but this wine is selling for $62…. while supplies last.

The final pour was the 2010 “Stone Place” Cabernet Sauvignon. When swirling this wine stains glass with bright ruby tears. On the nose I picked up strawberry preserves, blueberries, black cherries, red currants, dark chocolate and a hint of sweet pipe tobacco. On the palate this wine is DELICIOUS on entry, it is round with a full-mouth feel with supple tannins, medium acidity and a very prolonged finish. An absolutely fantabulous wine with a hefty price tag to match at $110 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Crocker and Starr

6236 Silverado Trail

Napa, CA 94558

Phone: 1-707-944-9261