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Napa Sonoma Magazine
Summer / Fall 2006

 
Four to Watch

These Napa Valley vintners are making wines you need to be drinking

By Deborah Grossman

These winemakers don’t have big tasting rooms. They don’t have colorful marketing campaigns. Their names are not Mondavi or Shrem or Coppola. You may not find them on a visitors map, and you may not find their wines in BevMo. In fact, because their production is very limited, you may not find some of their wines at all. But these “undiscovered” vintners are crafting some of the most fascinating vintages in Northern California.

Green & Red Vineyard

Order the house Zinfandel at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and what do you get? Green & Red Vineyard Zinfandel, made by Jay Heminway. The former sculptor swapped molding clay for pruning vines on the steep hillsides of Chiles Valley, on the east side of the Napa Valley.

Alice Waters is not the only one to recognize Heminway’s affinity for coaxing great grapes from the earth. Wine critic Robert Parker Jr. and The Wine Spectator have raved about the vineyard-designated Zinfandels from
his 200-acre estates for several years. Heminway also makes a highly regarded Sauvignon Blanc, as his wife and business partner, Pam, is a white wine aficionado.

The winery’s name, honoring the estate’s red soils veined with green serpentine, reflects Heminway’s respect for nature. Solar energy powers 80 percent of the winery’s operations. Heminway monitors water levels with high-tech sensors and prevents soil erosion with permanent cover crops. “We intend to keep production small so we can manage the vineyard and winery with full attention to detail,” says Heminway. This meticulous approach is paying off. Look for recently released Tip Top Vineyard Zinfandel, from the highest elevation in the vineyard. This wine is well structured with a depth of dark fruit flavors, concentrated but not overly alcoholic.

Besides Chez Panisse, you can find Heminway’s wines at Bistro Don Giovanni and Angèle in Napa; Redd in Yountville; Premier Cru, Mosaic, and the Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma; Ame and Boulevard in San
Francisco; and in stores such as St. Helena Wine Merchant and The Depot.

Scholium Project

Abe Schoener doesn’t own a vineyard or winery building and gives very
odd names to his wines (such as Glos, Proserpina, and Scythia). But this
passionate vintner is on his way to the pantheon of highly acclaimed winemakers. Schoener earned his winemaking stripes at luminary Luna Vineyards in Napa from 1999 to 2004 (he was winemaker from 2002). That was after Dr. Schoener (he’s got a Ph.D. in philosophy) decided to change from his career as a college professor.

Scholium means modest project or commentary in Latin. Schoener produces 600 cases and aspires, someday, to 1,000 cases. His vision for a tasting room is an unassuming shed or barn (insofar as he has any vision for a tasting room at all). His wines do not showcase fruit flavors. “My wines smell more of mineral things, gunpowder or lead pencil,” says Schoener, “and also nuts, spices, and animal flavors like prosciutto or cheese.” Schoener allows the yeast and aging process to transform grapes into wine with great depth of flavor. Indeed, Schoener says his Babylon Petite Sirah from Suisun Valley is “almost undrinkable” on its own. “Babylon is not an everyday wine. It needs a seared steak or intensely flavored stew to complement its dark and tannic side.” Schoener purchases all his grapes from growers that he knows personally. He charges $80 for most bottles and eschews fancy advertising campaigns. He says, “I want to find 600 people who love my wine and sell it to them.” 

Order these intriguing wines at The French Laundry in Yountville or Myth and Jack Falstaff in San Francisco. You can buy them at Back Room Wines in Napa or Dean & Deluca in St. Helena.

Crocker & Starr Wines

Pam Starr calls herself a “winemaker vagabond with a road show.” A once aspiring dentist who detoured into food science and enology, she applies her energy, analytical skills, and creativity to the winemaking career she loves.

After gaining wide acclaim for several wines at Spottswoode Winery, Starr has made her wine at custom facilities for 15 years. Silent partner Charlie Crocker owns the historic St. Helena vineyard, where she creates her estate wines. “My goal is to make great, concentrated estate wines that are a steal at any price,” says Starr. Her Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon blend, at $65, compares favorably to other cult wines at $125. Her Sauvignon Blanc costs $25 and Cabernet Franc, with flavors and aromas of violets, blueberry, and tobacco spice, is $40.Cabernet Franc? “This is my ‘hair-on-fire’ wine,” she says. “Everyone told me I was crazy to make it, but Franc is fun.” And other people are realizing that Franc is indeed fun. Ted Allen, the tastemaker on the Queer Eye TV show, picked the ’03 vintage as a top holiday wine, and Barbara Walters recently drank it on The View.

Starr sells her wine on a first come, first served basis from her mailing list. Her wine is also sold at Dean & Deluca and other fine wine retailers and at restaurants such as Redd in Yountville, Press in St. Helena, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and Gary Danko in San Francisco.

Barlow Vineyards

Barlow Vineyards is a family affair. In 1994, two generations of Smiths uprooted from Newport Beach to settle at their newly purchased vineyard estate on the Silverado Trail south of Calistoga. When they made 25 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon for their own enjoyment in 1997, their consulting winemaker told them they should sell it. Rather than naming their endeavor Smith, they christened the winery with the more memorable “Barlow,” after the middle name of both dad Warren and son Barr.

What makes Barlow Vineyards so special? The 38 acres of estate vines, planted close to the hills yet on the valley floor, grow in a unique soil that intermingles layers of gravel, sand, and loam (essentially volcanic soil). This carefully nurtured environment yields superb grapes for the 1,700 cases of estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Barrouge blend. The Cabernet Sauvignon, which sells for $40, garnered gold from the San Francisco Chronicle. Barrouge, the proprietary Cab-Merlot blend (also $40), is more aromatic and softer than the Cabernet and is extremely popular. Look for the newly released 2005 Sailor’s Delight Cabernet Rosé, about $12. “This should be a fun summer wine,” says Barr. “We want people to enjoy our wines as much as we enjoy making them.”

Buy Barlow Vineyards wines at wine specialty shops such as Back Room Wines in Napa and St. Helena Wine Merchants, and on the menu at Brix, Stomp, and Meadowood in Napa Valley.

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