World Class Wine Tasting
Elevate your Wine Country experience with these six wine-tasting adventures.
Keller Estate / by Matt Edge
Visiting a winery is often about discovering beautiful settings, learning the intriguing history of an estate, and meeting passionate winemakers. It’s also about tasting the wines that have given a region its distinctive character. To help you really get in touch with Wine Country, here are six world-class wine-tasting experiences.
Nestled in the rolling hills off Lakeville Highway, Keller Estate winery was founded by Arturo Keller and his wife, Deborah, in the late 1980s.
Distinguished by its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, this unique area is influenced by morning fog and warm afternoons cooled by maritime winds. These climatic conditions, mixed with diverse types of soil, make this southern section of the Sonoma Coast appellation a perfect place to grow world-class fruit.
Depending on where you are on the property, the charm of the vineyards is enhanced by spectacular views of San Pablo Bay, Mount Tamalpais, Mount Burdell, and the Petaluma River.
“My parents were attracted to the stunning natural beauty of the property. And the beauty of the site shines in the estate wines we make,” says Ana Keller, Arturo and Deborah’s daughter.
The end result is a magnificent stream of elegant versions of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, which are fresh and lively. The same is true with the red wines, focusing on Pinot Noir, Syrah, and the food-friendly Casa Red Blend, featuring explosive flavors that vary from mixed berries and fresh ruby grapefruit, to spices and lingering hints of smoke and earth.
Open Friday through Monday by appointment only, the winery offers a series of tasting options, including the popular cheese plate, pairing local cheeses with each wine.
Drink this: The 2013 La Cruz Chardonnay features lovely aromas of tree fruit, citrus, and spice, leading to dazzling flavors of ripe apple, white peach, and vanilla.
Cellar selection: While Keller Estate uses pinot noir grapes to make a variety of wines, the 2013 El Coro Pinot Noir is the ultimate reflection of the estate. This limited-release wine features explosive flavors of ripe raspberry, zesty spices, and hints of forest floor. In addition to coating the palate with layers of complexity when young, it gets better with time in the bottle. 5875 Lakeville Hwy., Petaluma, (707) 765-2117, kellerestate.com.
Three Sticks at the Adobe
Three Sticks Winery is affectionately named after the winery’s proprietor, Bill Price III, who earned the nickname “Billy Three Sticks” during his surfing days in Hawaii.
In 1995, Price and his business partners bought Beringer Vineyards, and added other premier brands like Chateau St. Jean and Stags’ Leap Winery to their portfolio. Price eventually sold his shares back to his partners after buying the prestigious Durell Vineyard in Sonoma in 1998.
This sloping hillside vineyard is known for its rocky clay loam soil, warm days, breezy afternoons, and foggy nights leading up to harvest. All this makes it an ideal site to grow world-class chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
Through the years, these magnificent grapes have been used in vineyard-designated wines by Kendall-Jackson, Kistler Vineyards, and Three Sticks, the boutique brand Price began in 2002.
In addition to assembling a talented wine-making team, Price recently acquired a series of vineyards, including Gap’s Crown—a cool-climate site on the west side of Sonoma Mountain. But while the early releases were popular with sommeliers, Three Sticks didn’t have a tasting room.
That changed in 2012, when Price purchased the historic Vallejo-Casteñada Adobe in downtown Sonoma. With the help of local designers and esteemed San Francisco designer Ken Fulk, the building’s restoration was completed in 2014.
With strong wooden beams, Mexican tiles, and stylish leather furniture, plus a fusion of historic, classic, and contemporary art, the refurbished adobe and tasting room are inviting from the moment you walk in the door.
Once settled in the private tasting area, guests can try the flavorful new Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Durell and Gap’s Crown vineyards, as well as rich and complex selections of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and the Moon Mountain District in Sonoma Valley.
The Adobe is open by appointment Monday through Saturday, with opportunities to try older vintages upon request.
Drink this: For Chardonnay fans, the winery offers two special selections from nearby Durell Vineyard. The first is the annual release, a rich and complex wine with notes of ripe peach, citrus, toasted almonds, and fresh-baked brioche. The second is Origin, an elegant Chablis-style wine with lively notes of tropical fruits, sliced apples, and mineral.
Cellar selection: The 2013 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir was only the second Three Sticks release from this highly respected vineyard. With a combination of complex fruit character, structured tannins, and a silky texture, the wine is bursting with notes of dark red fruits, cherry cola, black tea, and subtle spices. The end result is a wine that continues to build length with more time in the glass or the cellar. 143 W. Spain St., Sonoma, (707) 996-3328, threestickswines.com.
Russian River Valley
With views that form a handsome patchwork of rolling hills, vineyards, and waterways, a drive through the Russian River Valley is a priceless experience. Just ask Helen Bacigalupi of Bacigalupi Vineyards, whose family bought Goddard Ranch in 1956.
Although the property came with 16 acres of planted vineyards, the more lucrative crops at the time were fruit trees. But as interest in new grape varieties expanded, the family took a leap of faith and, in 1964, began developing what would become six acres of chardonnay and the first pinot noir vines planted on Westside Road.
Once the new vines were established, the family began selling grapes to Rodney Strong and the Foppiano and Seghesio families. In 1973, Bacigalupi sold 14 tons of chardonnay grapes to Chateau Montelena Winery that eventually became 40 percent of the master blend in the famous wine that won over the French in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.
While most of the chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, and petite sirah grapes grown on the estate are sold to boutique producers, a portion of the precious fruit is used by winemaker Ashley Herzberg to craft limited-release wines under the Bacigalupi label. Guests can taste the special releases at the intimate tasting room without an appointment.
Bacigalupi says the secret to the success of their grapes is a combination of balanced sunshine, cool nights, red volcanic soil, and planting the best varieties in the right locations.
“How it affects the flavor profile, nobody knows. But after years of having people raving about the wine, there must be something to that,” she says.
Drink this: While the limited releases from Frost and Goddard Ranches have their own unique characteristics, the 2014 Pinot Noir is a delicious blend of these two sites, with layers of bright red fruits, vibrant acidity, and fragrant aromas.
Cellar selection: As proven at the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, the Russian River Valley is a special place to grow the noble chardonnay grape. The latest case in point is the Bacigalupi 2014 Chardonnay, a full-bodied gem with lovely aromas and expressive flavors of ripe melon, citrus, honey, and creamy vanilla. 4353 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, (707) 473-0115, bacigalupivineyards.com.
Although it’s located on the rugged slopes of Mount George east of Napa, Palmaz Vineyards is just a short drive from downtown. Before Prohibition, the site was home to the Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery started by Napa Valley pioneer Henry Hagen in 1881. During Prohibition, the winery was abandoned, until Julio Palmaz and his wife, Amalia, purchased the property in the late 1990s.
Before he developed the famous Palmaz Coronary Stent used in hospitals around the world, Palmaz attended the University of California, Davis, where he fell in love with wine.
Upon driving onto the estate, one look at the three terrace vineyards reveals Palmaz’s attention to detail. A stone-laced stairwell leads to a remarkable piece of architecture that houses a matrix of tasting rooms, dining areas, elegant furnishings, antique automobiles, and an intricate web of cellars and caves that encompass 18 stories inside the mountain.
Over the past decade, Palmaz has passed down his love for the property and finished wines to the next generation, which includes Florencia, Christian, and Jessica, Christian’s wife. Each family member has a wine named after him or her. Florencia, for whom the dessert wine made with muscat canelli grapes is named, has vivid memories of “Brown Bag Wednesdays,” when the family members would have to guess the varietal, brand, and price point of the wines poured at dinner. “Ninety percent of our time was spent discussing wine,” she says.
Private tastings and tours are available by appointment only.
Drink this: As the Palmaz family’s version of an Argentinean wine, the Brasas 2012 is made primarily with cabernet sauvignon and malbec grapes grown on the estate. With deep flavors of wild berries, bittersweet chocolate, savory spices, and a hint of smoke, it’s a great pairing with steak and grilled meats.
Cellar selection: At Palmaz Vineyards, the cult wine is the Gaston Cabernet Sauvignon. Named after son Christian Gastón, this full-bodied wine is made with the finest fruit from the estate. On the palate, the deep notes of blackberry, dark cherry, and black raspberry are accented with hints of chocolate and oak, and a generous finish. 4029 Hagen Rd., Napa, (707) 226-5587, palmazvineyards.com.
When Donn and Molly Chappellet purchased a remote Vaca Mountains property in 1967, their intention was to make premier wines with pure mountain fruit character. To get started, they worked with winemaker André Tchelistcheff as a consultant to help develop the vineyards and cellar processes.
As the years passed, the deep and elegant flavors of the 25 separate blocks of cabernet sauvignon grapes planted on the property received praise from wine critics and wine lovers, and earned the title of “Napa’s Grand Cru.”
One of the oldest family-owned and family-operated wineries in Napa Valley, Chappellet prides itself on treating its vineyards with respect. In addition to farming Pritchard Hill with sustainable and organic techniques, the Chappellet family grows their chardonnay vines in a similar manner on their other estate property in Carneros.
The winery reflects the artistry of the wines and unique sense of place, offering tastings by appointment in its pyramid-shaped tasting room. In addition to tasting new releases, guests can try limited-production wines available to members of the Pritchard Hill Club, as well as tour the historic facility and vineyards.
Drink this: Although the annual release of the Chardonnay is impressive, the white wine to taste is the Signature Chenin Blanc. Regarded as one of the finest examples of the varietal outside France, this limited-release wine is highlighted with delightful notes of fresh orange blossom, apricot, grapefruit, and white pepper, and has a long, crisp finish.
Cellar selection: As has been the case for five decades, the ageless wonder is the Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. With attractive scents of blue fruits, wild herbs, earth, and savory spices, this sumptuous wine opens up with deep notes of ripe blackberry, crème de cassis, chocolate, fine tannins, and rich texture, and has a lingering finish. For that reason, the 2012 drinks well now and will for 25 years. 1581 Sage Canyon Rd., St. Helena, (707) 286-4219, chappellet.com.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stags Leap District
While honing his skills as a winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery, Warren Winiarski fell in love with the historic Stags Leap District.
Inspired by tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon from the district’s Fay Vineyard, Winiarski purchased the vineyards next to the Fay property and started Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1970. Winiarski’s dream of making a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon came true at the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when his 1973 vintage won over the top French wines from Bordeaux.
Through the years, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has become home to some of the most highly regarded and collected wines worldwide. And until he sold the winery in 2007, Winiarski trained an impressive list of star winemakers and helped put Napa Valley Cabernet on the global map.
This history is preserved at the Fay Outlook and Visitor Center. Completed in 2014, this artsy building is located next to the original Fay Vineyard, which was purchased by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1986.
Open seven days a week, the tasting room offers flights from the winery’s Estate Collection, which you can sip at the main bar inside or on the relaxing outdoor patio. Reservations for tastings are recommended, and are required for parties of five or more.
For an intensive learning experience, the Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour offers stunning views of the vineyards and the hillside volcanic outcroppings, a tour of the cave, and tastings of the Estate Collection wines. For private groups, the Fire and Water Tour and Tasting focuses on the vineyards and wine-making techniques of three wines from the estate—the S.L.V., Fay, and Cask 23—served alongside food pairings.
Drink this: Made with a combination of fruit from the Stag’s Leap and Fay vineyards, Cask 23 has become an iconic wine. From the 2013 vintage, the latest offering is layered with dark fruit notes of cherry and currant, along with espresso and cedar.
Cellar selection: As the pinnacle of the Estate Collection, the 2013 S.L.V. is filled with complex notes of cassis, brambly blackberry, dark chocolate, black truffle, and fine-grained oak, and it has a minute-long finish. Powerful, persistent, and rewarding, it’s a wine that will delight the senses now and for many years to come. 5766 Silverado Trail, Napa, (707) 944-2020, cask23.com.