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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

On a road called Oakville Grade at the top of the Mayacamas Mountains, a white stripe divides Napa Valley from Sonoma. It's as plain and neat as New York segueing into New Jersey inside the Holland Tunnel. • But Wine Country regulars hardly need a line in the road to differentiate Napa and Sonoma. Despite their proximity, these two California grape-growing regions offer those who visit—and those who drink their wines—vastly different experiences.

But how does one tell them apart without a label? The usual shorthand is to equate Napa with Bordeaux and Sonoma with Burgundy. In a vinous sense, that's not far off the mark. Napa's best wines are made from Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes (along with the occasional smattering of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, just like in the Medoc). Sonoma is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the grapes of Burgundy's Côte d'Or.

But Sonoma's 200 wineries, stretching from the Mayacamas to the Pacific Ocean, also produce world-class Syrah, Zinfandel and, yes, Cabernet. And for those who regard Napa as homogenous, consider that the narrow valley and its foothills are home to a near-Burgundian 14 appellations and 30 different soil types, as well as almost twice as many producers as Sonoma.

Like Bordeaux, which entertains by dressing up for lavish functions, Napa has the more elegant and evolved social scene. Like Burgundy, dining and entertaining in Sonoma is usually informal. "You basically go to visit your friends in Burgundy," says Ed Sbragia, who makes wine for Napa's oldest continually producing property, Beringer, but lived for years in Healdsburg, over the mountains. "That's what Sonoma is like. You go see your friends."

Douglas Keane, the chef and part owner of Healdsburg's hottest restaurant, Cyrus, offers a different take on Napa. "Napa's more established, more of a scene. And it's got more wine history."

All agree that no other wine region does tourism as well as Napa. "The ability to host visitors here is very, very important to building customer loyalty and our reputation," says Bill Phelps, chairman of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. "I can't tell you how many times someone has told me that their visit to the winery was the founding basis for their relationship with our wines."

But Napa also invented and perfected wine tourism en masse, which can be a mixed blessing. Buses disgorge dozens of power tasters, who often overrun the hospitality rooms and gift shops, scattering solo visitors in their wake. The winemakers—even the grapes—can seem far removed from the process.

Not so in Sonoma. Sure, tourist-destination wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, St. Francis and Kenwood cater to groups, but at most properties a visit involves calling ahead for an appointment. Upon arrival, you might be met by a winemaker or family member. "Sonoma takes a little more effort," says Grant Sharp, whose father-in-law, David Mars, created and owns Healdsburg's Les Mars Hôtel. "But it's more special. More of a unique experience than a commercial assembly line."

"There are still so many wineries here that are down-to-earth, and aren't just glossy and sterile-looking," adds Carolyn Martinelli, who founded Sonoma's Martinelli Vineyards with her husband, Lee, in 1987. "There's real people."

Sound harsh? That's Sonoma's other side, an inferiority complex rooted in the historic success of its older brother. Napa has been making standout wines since the 1940s and 1950s, when producers such as Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards and Louis Martini were at their height. Through the years, the vast majority of America's superstar wineries, from Mondavi and Montelena to Colgin, Bryant and Harlan, have based themselves off Highway 29.

Even the difference in wine styles serves to help Napa, which makes muscular, crowd-pleasing (and higher-scoring) wines, as opposed to Sonoma's lithe, elegant beauties. "If I lived in Sonoma and kept hearing people say, 'Napa,'" says Beringer's Laurie Hook, "I might get a little peeved after a while."

Lately, Sonomans have started to do something about it. Pinot Noirs such as Marcassin and Flowers have started attaining a cult-like status of their own. And though Sonoma remains predominantly rural, Napa lovers who visit Healdsburg call it the sincerest form of flattery. Its gourmet shops and boutiques set around a town square make it feel like a particularly tony neighborhood in Seattle, or a wealthy European village. "The Hotel Healdsburg completely changed the place," says wine photographer Andy Katz, who moved to Sonoma three years ago. "People were upset by it because it was modern and expensive, but it opened up the area. I like walking in Healdsburg now. It's urbane, but friendly." And despite the expensive stores and high-concept restaurants, Katz says, "I don't get an elitist feel at all."

If you're just visiting, or do your wine touring by pulling corks, you don't have to choose. You can fill a wall of your cellar with prime Napa Cabernets—and another with a range of Sonoma's best. You can spend half your vacation time in Napa, sunning poolside at Meadowood, eating at Redd and sipping Howell Mountain Merlot inside Beringer's private tasting room, and the other half in Sonoma savoring gourmet pizzas at Bovolo, then retreating to the pebbled courtyard of your Gaige House suite before tasting appointments on the coast.

When you're finished, you can come to the same conclusion as the smartest of the locals, who've given up trying to discern which lifestyle better suits their needs: we're lucky to have them both.

Benchmark Wineries—Sonoma

Martinelli Vineyards: All in the Family
Like the Martinis and the Mondavis, the Sebastianis and the Gallos, the Martinellis took an Italian wine-drinking heritage and constructed a family business that has spanned generations. The difference is, they did it not in the dim, distant past, but in the 1980s.

 

This shows how young a wine-producing region Sonoma really is. As late as 1975, when cars already were beginning to fill up Napa's Highway 29 heading for the Robert Mondavi Winery and other nascent tasting rooms, teenagers Lee Martinelli Jr. and his sister, Julie, sat in the parking lot of an old red barn on River Road selling apples to whoever wandered by.

Lee Martinelli Sr. had hundreds of acres of orchards, inherited from his grandfather. "We kept them in as long as we could, but prices went way down," he says. That got him thinking about the future.

In the late nineteenth century, Italian-born Giuseppe Martinelli had planted Zinfandel on the steep slope of a Sonoma County knoll called Jackass Hill. When Giuseppe died in 1918, his son, Leno, who'd been born on the property in 1905, tended the vines. It wasn't a business, just a link to his father and the Old World.

Then Lee, Leno's son and a high school teacher, decided to take 25 acres of apples and convert them to more grapes. But which ones? No studies could be done, no consultants could be asked, not in Sonoma in the '70s. In the end, he chose Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer because whites were fashionable then. Lee resigned from his teaching position to farm full-time.

Fortunately, the grapes developed a following among local wineries. In 1987, with the kids through college, Lee and his wife, Carolyn, decided to make and bottle wine. After Leno died in 1992, they added those century-old vines from Jackass Hill, and the adjacent Jackass Vineyard. "If I'm going to farm that damn hill, I'm going to take the fruit," Lee told his cousins. Those Zinfandels were the turning point.

By then, they had Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—and a star winemaker. Carolyn's father, George Charles, had raised sheep on the Sonoma coast, but when killing coyotes became illegal, the industry died with most of the sheep. Beginning in 1980, he planted grapes. One day in 1992 he went to take a look at an adjacent parcel, where he'd heard someone else was planting, and got his car stuck in the mud. "How much do you weigh?" he asked the renowned consultant Helen Turley, and a friendship was born. She sat on the tailgate to help dislodge the car, then struck a deal to make both her wines and Martinelli's.

It didn't take long before this family enterprise became a fashionable cult. Now the Martinellis—Lee and Carolyn, both 67, and their sons, Lee Jr., 41, and George, 37—sit in a conference room inside the big barn and plot the future. (Julie, 44, is away on a business trip to Los Angeles, convening a comprehensive tasting.) With Turley's guidance, the Jackass Zinfandels have earned renown as some of California's—and the world's—best. The Blue Slide Pinot Noirs are coveted by collectors. The Hop Barn Hill Syrahs have lately taken their place among America's best renditions of that variety.

Still, for all the wines' success, the general store down below is still filled with foodstuffs, including fresh cider in season. The winery retains its familial feel; it isn't hard to imagine kids selling apples in the parking lot. "People in the tasting room see us walk by," says Lee, "and they're stunned that Martinelli is really owned and run by Martinellis. They're accustomed to the big wineries of Napa. Sonoma is different. We're what this county is all about."

DuMOL: All the Right Moves
Kerry Murphy of DuMOL sits in the flagstone cellar of Sonoma's exclusive Mayacama Country Club drinking his own 2003 Viognier, his bushy eyebrows dancing. One of 28 vintner members, along with representatives of such wineries as Harlan, Araujo and Silver Oak, he's up from his Bay Area home, ensconced in one of the club's casitas. "We probably have the most magical place in the world," he says of Sonoma. A glimpse at the view over the golf course confirms the sentiment.

Murphy is new Sonoma royalty, a living example of how its wine industry has come of age. The formula consists of scores in the mid-90s, tiny volumes and high prices justified by the flavors in the bottle. "Granted, I'm a bottomless pit of enthusiasm when it comes to our wines," Murphy says. "But I'll put these against any in the world."

In 1987, when he was 45, the Oakland-born Murphy sold eight companies to Goodyear Tire. He retired and started collecting wine. A hundred bottles grew to 4,000, and a passion for Burgundy became the yearning to create his own. DuMOL started in 1996, in partnership with investor Michael Verlander.

The wines that have emerged—as made by Andy Smith, who has worked with Paul Hobbs, Littorai's Ted Lemon and the formidable New Zealand producer Dry River—are known for a purity of fruit rarely seen in the Côte d'Or. "Our wines have a dimension that the wines of Burgundy don't have," Murphy boasts.

He's talking about Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, those Burgundian staples, but also prodigious Syrahs and, lately, Viognier, varieties indigenous to the Rhône Valley. If that combination seems odd, well, it is. Perhaps only in Sonoma, with its varying pockets of terrain and multitude of microclimates, could a boutique producer make world-class Pinot Noir and Rhône varieties, too.

Smith harvests his fruit as early as possible. "We're not trying to push the wines to the finish line," he says. He makes the wines in an industrial park near Santa Rosa that is devoid of tourist amenities. Then Murphy gives them precious, lowercase names like finn and chloe ("I like the way they look on the label," he says) and sends them out to a mailing list full of devotees.

It would all mean nothing if it was just marketing and hype. But DuMOL wines such as the Chardonnay isobel 2005, which will be released this November, have a personality all their own. Made from grapes grown in Green Valley, the isobel has caramel on the nose, a hint of old-world austerity to keep the piercing fruit honest, and a tranquility that's just about impossible to find in a Napa wine. They'll love it at Mayacama.

Flowers Vineyard & Winery: On the Edge
The drive from downtown Healdsburg to the Pacific Ocean takes an hour. The road winds along the Russian River, beneath redwoods that blot out all but deeply dappled sunlight. It ends beneath an inevitable blanket of fog on Highway 1.

A mile or so inland and about 1,500 feet up sits some of America's best Pinot Noir, grown in a string of vineyards that hug the coastline. This is a different Sonoma, a world away from the knolls and valleys near Jackass Hill. It sees few visitors and offers few amenities. Lunch is a piece of fish on a bun at one of the tumbledown tourist stops in Bodega Bay, with sea spray in your face. "Some people say their wines get the influence of the Pacific Ocean," says Tom Hinde, who left Kendall-Jackson after 16 years to run Flowers. "But we live in the influence of the Pacific Ocean."

At an unmarked mailbox off a windy mountain road, you'll find Flowers. At their nursery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Walt and Joan Flowers spent the 1980s growing trees that needed two decades from planting to harvest. When they decided to move west and plant grapes, they weren't put off by the investment of several years. It seemed like immediate gratification by comparison.

They'd married in 1982 and filled a 120-bottle wine storage unit. That gave way to a 5,000-bottle cellar hidden behind a bookcase. Cool-climate Pinots and Chardonnays spoke to the terroirist in both of them. They still recall the wording of the tiny classified ad that Joan spotted in Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, in 1989: "320-acre Sonoma Coast property. Vineyard potential."

They were readers, hikers, contemplators—not glamorous people. Yet Sonoma felt right. The couple bought the land in 1989, built a road and created infrastructure, then started making wine from purchased grapes in 1991. Their own vineyards came on line shortly thereafter. A 1996 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir was served at the White House to 44 heads of state. "I think there was a lot of, 'Hey, who are these people?' after that," Joan says.

A decade on, the wines are magnificent—and utterly site-specific. The Camp Meeting Ridge 2004 shows cherry and spice, not the raspberries and strawberries of Burgundy or the straight-on richness of the Russian River Valley. A 2003 from the Frances Thompson vineyard is elegant yet firm, with the promise of many years ahead.

The typical yield is less than two tons an acre, but they don't need many bottles of anything to make the winery pay. With help from Flowers, the Sonoma coast has become one of California's hottest appellations, in less time than it would have taken to harvest one crop of trees.

Williams Selyem: The Passing of the Torch
For years, Williams Selyem meant the artistic vision of Burt Williams. Self-taught, focused to the point of obsession, he started making his Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in a garage in 1981 and almost single-handedly created a paradigm of greatness for the appellation. His tempestuous pride was legendary. If you innocently spit out his wine during a tasting, the tasting was over.

In 1997, Williams and Ed Selyem sold out to enthusiasts John and Kathe Dyson. John had helped revamp Times Square for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and John's father, Charles, had pretty much invented the leveraged buyout, so the Dysons had plenty of money. By then, Williams was weary of the grind. He agreed to stay and consult. But he needed somebody to make the wine.

Bob Cabral, 44, has long hair and granny glasses. Raised in Modesto, he was 19 when he started buying Williams Selyem Pinots: customer No. 576 on the mailing list. He worked as a field representative for winemaker Fred Franzia, served as the assistant winemaker at DeLoach from 1987 to 1992, then moved on in succession to Kunde, Alderbrook and Hartford Court. An affable journeyman who could turn out serviceable wine from most any variety, he was hardly someone you'd pick to succeed Williams. But Williams did.

After a long, oblique tasting session that Cabral never realized was an interview, Williams asked if he'd meet the Dysons. Cabral couldn't believe it. "I remember thinking, 'Holy cow, I'd get to work with the greatest fruit in California,'" he says. He didn't exactly drive a hard bargain. All he desired beyond what they were proposing was a case of each wine for his own use, since he couldn't afford to buy them anymore.

Cabral has calibrated his vision to Williams's template. The resulting wines bridge the gap between what the best American Pinots tasted like a generation ago, and what they taste like now. Volume has gone from 8,000 cases in 1997 to 12,000 today, but the pinpoint intensity, rich texture and long finish of the wines have remained. Like the old Williams Selyems, the wines are manipulated as little as possible—and never filtered. "If I have to filter it," Cabral says, "I dump it down the drain instead."

He pours a 2001 from the Allen Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, a 2000 Hirsch Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast, then a 1999 from the Rochioli Vineyard redolent of plums and blackberries. All are different, but they share the common thread of bright, intense fruit. And they all taste unmistakably like Pinot Noir, which Williams insisted on.

Cabral is the first to say that he's no visionary. "Where Burt was a mile ahead, I'm only about 50 feet ahead," he says. But times have changed, and what's needed now isn't vision so much as standards and a steady hand. Cabral is adamant that the quality of Williams Selyem will not decline on his watch. And he'll let you spit when you taste his wines.

Chateau St. Jean: Napa in Sonoma
Not all of Sonoma's wineries are hideaways down unmarked lanes, or rural farmsteads with wine on shelves alongside jams and jellies. Chateau St. Jean is a chateau that wouldn't look out of place in Margaux, let alone Napa. Its best wine is not a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, but a meaty Bordeaux blend.

Yet something about the place feels hopelessly, wonderfully Sonoman. There's never a crunch in the parking lot, rarely a line at the cash register. Set on the 250 acres of the old Goff Estate, its gardens are lush and perfectly tended, but utterly accessible. Pretense is abandoned at the door. A small boy whacks a balloon over the hedges and runs after it over the lawn. He looks like a character in some French movie.

Since 1974, its first vintage, Chateau St. Jean has turned out a range of high-quality wines as broad as any winery in California, from fruit grown in every corner of the county. "That's what makes Sonoma unique," says winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, who has been employed there since 1980, when she was 23. "You have that wild diversity. Not only can you grow all these varietals, but many of them can be grown in several different appellations."

It seems sensible to capitalize on that range of potential sites with distinct wines. But before Chateau St. Jean, nobody was doing it. Hired as winemaker by the original owners, the Merzoian family, Dick Arrowood found one compelling parcel after another, then set out to make wines from each in the Burgundian fashion. "At one point," Van Staaveren says, "we had nine vineyard-designate Chardonnays."

Arrowood didn't stop at Chardonnay. Hard as it seems to believe now, he also made five vineyard-designate Rieslings. Such misplaced ambition might bankrupt a modern-day producer, but St. Jean thrived. In 1981, as a statement of what the winery was and what it wasn't, Arrowood stopped making Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1984, Japan's Suntory bought the property. Six years later, Arrowood left to start his own winery and was replaced by Don Van Staaveren, Margo's husband. By the time phylloxera hit at the end of the decade, reds had become fashionable, so he replanted some vineyards to Bordeaux varieties. That led to Cinq Cepages, which blended Bordeaux grapes into a high-end release.

When the 1996 Cinq Cepages was named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, it forever changed the image of the winery, which is now owned by Australia's Foster's. Those who knew it for its Robert Young Chardonnay were always surprised to see a bottle of red beside it at tastings. Now consumers see Chardonnay and say, "I didn't know you made whites, too." But the multifaceted approach has remained unaltered even as winemakers have come and gone. In all, St. Jean produces 30 different wines today, including a Fume Blanc, a single-vineyard Pinot Noir, even a rich, singular, varietal Malbec. All but the lowest-priced blends come from Sonoma.

When Margo Van Staaveren first arrived in 1980, as the first in her family to have attended college, she was looking for a permanent job with benefits. It became permanent, all right. Yet after more than a quarter-century in Sonoma, she knows little about Napa. Even names of famous restaurants and gourmet shops fail to alter her blank expression. "Sonoma's very provincial, exceedingly provincial," she says. It's supposed to be an apology, but she doesn't sound too contrite.

Benchmark Wineries—Napa

Beringer Vineyards: Living History
As you drive up Napa Valley, past fashionable restaurants and one sleek winery after another, it's easy to forget that the vinous past here extends back more than a century. Then you arrive at Beringer, where the Rhine House looks like something from a fairy tale and wine has been produced for generations. Ignore the tour groups and concentrate on the history: Beringer was founded in 1876, which makes it older than the vast majority of wineries in the world.

 

In recent years, it has been owned by Nestlé, the Texas Pacific Group, Michael Moon, Beringer Blass and now Foster's. Despite such change, it's been a model of consistency. Head winemaker, Ed Sbragia, started in 1976, when he was 26; assistant Laurie Hook arrived a decade later. "Guys in the cellar have been there as long as I have or longer," Sbragia says. "One of our cellar managers has been here for 40 years."

When he started, Sbragia recalls, Chateau Montelena, Shafer and a few other wineries were making wines at the level he was shooting for. "[There were] maybe 10 of us making Reserve Cabernet," he says. "Now there are hundreds." And many taste like Beringer, or try to.

He and his team have helped define and hone not only the modern incarnation of Beringer's style, but, it might be said, Napa Valley's, too. Sbragia likes wines that are big, Cabernets and Chardonnays and Merlots full of tannin and loads of fruit, balanced by enough alcohol and a splash of acidity to keep it all afloat. Unlike many imitators, however, Beringer's top wines are built to last. On first impression, a five-year-old Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot 2001 is hard and firm and not particularly ripe. But as it begins to open, it shows layers of dark fruit and a mountain hardiness that seems to promise it will taste good forever.

That's a product of low yields and strict selection, for even with corporate ownership pushing profits and production nosing into the millions, Beringer's best wines continue to be made in small batches. "I've fought for that for 30 years," Sbragia says. "The Private Reserve is a person-to-person thing, not mass-market."

In 1986, Beringer acquired the Bancroft Ranch. But apart from that and a few other parcels, most of the land Sbragia uses to source grapes was at his disposal when he arrived. He gets high-altitude fruit from Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. "A lot of pretty awesome mountain Cabernet sites," says Hook.

By now, they know what to expect from each, and how to tweak the different terroirs toward Beringer's house style. They run vast experimental programs, but use them only to make tiny changes in the product, like those futuristic cars you see at the auto shows that end up maybe influencing a dashboard shape on the commercial level. "With a winery as traditional as this one," Sbragia says, "you need to be careful."

Beringer isn't just coloring inside the lines; you might say it drew most of them to begin with. And with such success in the past, why change? "There's a reason why people want to drink Napa wine," says Hook. "There's a reason why the wineries have gotten such attention. It's not just a couple of years, it's a long history, a great history." With every vintage, Beringer keeps on writing it.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards: The Accidental Innovator
Joe Phelps never intended to revolutionize the wine industry. He just didn't want a wine of his to be labeled "Reserve."

In 1974, he and winemaker Walter Schug constructed a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with other varieties added. It tasted so good, they wanted to release it as a stand-alone wine. But they had no name. Phelps believed that the Reserve designation sounded fraudulent and he also liked the idea of separating out the best cuvée he had in each vintage. In another year, that might be Merlot, or even Riesling. So Reserve Cabernet simply didn't work.

The wine was bottled without a label. Finally, a name came to him during his morning shave: Insignia.

It was, as far as anyone can tell, the first proprietary blend in the history of American wine. Certainly none would affect an industry—or a place—like Insignia. "Joe's fond of saying that the road to success is still under construction," says Craig Williams, Phelps's director of winemaking, who has worked there since 1976. "But even he would have to acknowledge that Insignia was profoundly important."

Much of the cachet that Napa has developed in recent decades comes from wines—mostly Cabernet- or Merlot-based blends—that transcend their varieties and appellations. Today, fanciful names from Archipel to Zero Manipulation are attached to some of the valley's finest (and most expensive) bottlings. They're a way to differentiate your wine from the hundreds of others on the market. "Insignia is a brand, the way Joseph Phelps is a brand," says Bill Phelps, Joe's son. "That wasn't his intention, but that's what happened."

A successful contractor who saw an opportunity building wineries, Joe Phelps had come to California from Greeley, Colorado. He built what is now Rutherford Hill in Napa, and Sonoma's Chateau Souverain. Then he bought land, cleared away the cattle and horses, and built a winery for himself. From the beginning in 1973, he brought a new outlook, at once pragmatic and visionary, to what had been an insider's field. "Joe is very much a bottom-line person," Bill says. "He approached it as a stand-alone business that would make a profit. But he was able to take the long-term view."

Phelps was the first in Napa's modern era to bottle a Syrah. "When he started poking around, he said, 'I really love the wines of the Rhône,'" Bill says. "'Isn't it unusual that nobody has grabbed hold of this?'" Phelps found one vineyard growing Syrah and bought all the fruit. More than three decades later, his winery has phased out varietal Rieslings, Merlots, Semillons and—beginning with the 2005 vintage—even Napa Chardonnays. But the Syrah is going strong.

Being a forward thinker is helpful. "But the real success," says Williams, "was taking those innovations and putting legs on them." Of the hundreds of Bordeaux blends and other proprietary wines made in California each year, Insignia arguably remains the best. Witness the 2002, named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2005. As smooth and powerful as a Ferrari, it leaves the sense—as every great wine should—that it is far more than the sum of its component parts. The creation of the Insignia brand may have been an accident, but wines as distinguished as that aren't made accidentally.

Lewis Cellars: Taking the Wheel
Randy Lewis had a career racing cars. He wanted a second one producing wine, which he'd discovered on the European Formula III circuit in the 1970s. "I would just camp out in those little wine villages between races," he says.

That he landed in Napa is no surprise. Somehow, you can't imagine a man this competitive, who made the starting grid for five Indianapolis 500s, launching a winery in Mendocino or Monterrey or even Sonoma. "There's nowhere for Cabernet like Napa," Lewis says. "The wines are thicker, richer, if you do it right."

Napa attracts people like Lewis, who've made the upper echelon in one field or another. And Lewis himself is proof that the idea of making world-class wine when you've barely ever mixed a cocktail isn't just a fantasy. "When you've raced cars for 23 years, your attitude is one of winning," Lewis says. "It wasn't like we arrived saying, 'We're going to blow everyone's socks off.' But we wanted to be good."

He didn't do it with money. You'd have to be a Mario Andretti, now a Napa neighbor with a winery of his own, to come away from racing in the '70s and '80s with the savings to be set for life. "We didn't have a huge bank account, so this wasn't about having fun," says Debbie Lewis, Randy's wife. "We needed to be serious."

"There's two ways you do it," Randy adds. "The more exciting way is, you come in and really do it. I'd only raced cars my whole life, so the learning curve was almost straight up. We thought, 'How will we catch up?' But we caught it at a time when things were changing so much, doing different stuff in the vineyards and the winery. We hadn't really missed anything."

Lewis dipped a toe in the water by helping the late Bob Miner start Oakville Ranch in 1989. In 1991, with Joe Cafaro as the winemaker, he released his own Chardonnay and Cabernet under Miner's label. Two years later, following his retirement from racing at age 46, he started Lewis Cellars with Cafaro as enologist. Then he hired Helen Turley for a year, and Paul Hobbs followed for three. By the end of 1999, he realized that he was making most of the important decisions. Since then, with help from several trainees, he has made the wine.

Now he turns out 9,000 cases a year of well-oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. In the best vintages, that includes about 150 cases designed to compete with the best Cabernets around. The 2001 Cuvee L looks as dark as prune juice, and it's almost as viscous. In a valley that values bigger as better, this is one of the best. Lewis pours a glass in the tasting room of his small winery and beams with pride. "I never won the Indy 500," Lewis says. "Now our whole life is in these barrels. This is the Indy 500."

Colgin: State of the Art
Ann Colgin is showing off the view from the picture window of her new winery, which is up a winding road overlooking Lake Hennessy, Napa Valley's back door. Then she turns to face a view inside that is nearly as stunning. A WPA mural from1939 dominates a sitting room, which is filled with antiques and art from around the world.

It isn't exactly the room that cult wine built because Colgin's husband, Joe Wender, is a former partner of the Goldman Sachs Financial Institutions Group. Still, those coveted bottles didn't hurt.

The cult-Cabernet phenomenon is not only native to Napa Valley, but has helped define it as well. Even if you've never tasted a Colgin, Bryant Family, Harlan or Screaming Eagle, just knowing that the valley can produce such wines—which usually cost more than Bordeaux's first-growths, and score just as high or higher—alters your mind-set about the region. "All are about the essence of this special place," Colgin says. "I don't think it could have happened anywhere else."

That it happened to her was unexpected. With her master's degree in art administration, the Texas-born Colgin moved to New York in 1985 as an art and antiques dealer. She started spending five weeks a year in Napa Valley, living in a farmhouse on the valley floor. By the time she met Turley in the early 1990s, she thought a small winery of her own might be an enjoyable sideline. Turley made Colgin's first vintage in 1992 from purchased grapes.

The timing was perfect. A new generation of Napa Valley producers, as different from those that had gone before as the Impressionists were from traditional painters, were starting boutique wineries almost simultaneously. "You had a number of energetic people who were willing to do whatever it took to make the best wine they could from the best land," Colgin says. "I was part of a fantastic pledge class."

Such wines were, by necessity, made in tiny quantities. And as the boom years of the 1990s created wine-savvy millionaires eager to try the best of everything, such rarity made these the most coveted wines in the world. "Small, handcrafted bottles of things," Colgin says. "It was a perfect fit for me, coming from the art world." For the first time, too, wine auctions had become legal in New York. "That changed the market dramatically," Colgin says. "The auction clientele appreciates quality and rarity." And a case of Colgin cost far less than, say, a modest Modigliani.

The phenomenon created an international reappraisal of Napa wines. "People began to take notice," Colgin says. "All of the attention caused people to say, 'I'd better try these.'" That served to push prices higher throughout the valley. If a Colgin or Bryant was worth $150 on release, wineries figured, their own top Cabernet should be at least $75.

Colgin has taken advantage of her success by buying vineyards. The IX, planted with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties, may be the most important. It produces almost 1,500 cases a year, a not-insignificant amount that gives a new wave of consumers access to Colgin for the first time with no loss of quality.

But Tychson Hill, tiny and historic, is the most compelling. The 2003 Tychson Hill Cabernet Sauvignon has an exotic cardamom nose reminiscent of Bordeaux's Cos d'Estournel, but a purple-gone-to-black color that could only mean Napa. Smoky, plummy and absolutely delicious, it will doubtless be seen by auctiongoers as the equivalent of rare art, to be displayed as the ultimate sign of good taste. That said, it would be a shame not to drink it.

Spottswoode Vineyard & Winery: Keeping the Faith
A vineyard fills 40 acres of downtown St. Helena, where Madrona Avenue meets Hudson. Adjacent is a gabled house, framed by pine trees that could have emerged intact from the 1890s. Its gardens are immaculate, tended with an ingenuity and a care seldom seen today. This property belongs to Spottswoode, a throwback of a Napa winery that makes Cabernet Sauvignons so restrained and elegant as to seem like royalty among commoners.

Jack Novak was a 38-year-old San Diego doctor in 1971 when he decided he didn't want to practice medicine anymore, nor raise his five children in San Diego. During a rainstorm, he fell in love with Napa and sunk his savings into 45 acres. The vineyard had been planted after Prohibition with Gamay, Petite Sirah, Chenin Blanc and French Colombard, grapes that sold at the local co-op for $300 a ton. With no knowledge of the business, Novak decided to replant with Cabernet Sauvignon and start a winery.

The family hated the idea. They hated Napa. "It was very, very rural and far less prosperous than today," says his daughter Beth Novak Milliken, now 46. "And he didn't have an appreciation for fine wine." Unlike many of his generation, Novak hadn't traveled in the Navy, hadn't spent time in Europe. He knew nothing about wine-drinking culture. He also didn't have enough money; the $270,000 he'd paid used up his savings. "It was utterly spontaneous, not well thought out," Novak Milliken says. Before long, he'd returned to doctoring.

In November 1977, Novak died of a heart attack at age 44. His wife, Mary, the heroine of this story, inherited the property. With five children between sixth grade and college, she could have cashed out, but chose instead to implement a vision that was never hers. In 1982, at the urging of local wine families such as the Duckhorns and the Shafers, she decided to release a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. She also hired Tony Soter as her winemaker. That started one of the more improbable runs of great wine California has seen.

Soter was one of Napa's first enologists to understand that if he wasn't intimately involved in the grapegrowing, he was losing his primary weapon for making the wine he wanted. He started employing organic practices in 1985, and added the brightness of Cabernet Franc to the mix. "Tony set the style," says Novak Milliken, "and we've stayed to it in the main. We've been true to our vineyard, and refined our focus on that piece of land." The philosophy, in simplistic terms, was to make a Napa Bordeaux. That's what Soter did through 1991, and what winemakers Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and—beginning with the 2006 vintage—Jennifer Williams have continued.

"We're not about hit-you-over-the-head power," says Novak Milliken. "These are wines of elegance and, hopefully, of grace." Even wines such as their 1997 Cabernet show the raspberries and cherries, the milky Cabernet Sauvignon texture and the lack of evident alcohol that identify it as a different manifestation of Napa Valley. This is a wine with dignity, less a commercial product than a piece of craftsmanship that happens to have appeal in the marketplace.

Mary Novak still tends her own gardens. And she still presides over the rambling house of a winery down the street from the vineyard. Her bravery of more than three decades ago has become just another well-told story now that Spottswoode is a success, both critically and financially, but you still can spot it in the shine of her eyes. And taste it in the wine.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


Dining out—Napa and Sonoma style

Perhaps nowhere in North America is accomplished food served in such inviting settings as in Napa Valley. Consider Richard Reddington's year-old Redd in the heart of Yountville, where a spare space of hardwood floors and light colors is matched by clean, precise cooking—honed by Reddington at San Francisco's Rubicon, Paris's Arpege, New York's Daniel, Beverly Hills's Spago and beyond—to delightful effect.

Out on the patio, beneath a violet midsummer sky, a group that includes wine educator and author Karen MacNeil and her vintner husband, Dennis Fife, are eating grilled quail, scallops on caramelized cauliflower puree, and sauteed skatewing with warm potato salad. Inside, Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus and Dominus sits at one table, Napa luminary Janet Trefethen at another. For every local who has brought in his own wine, a wide-eyed visitor is choosing from the 15,000-bottle cellar.

Down the street is America's most prestigious restaurant, but certainly not its stuffiest. Despite its acclaim, The French Laundry never seems reverential or self-congratulatory. The biggest surprise is that employees are unabashedly nice. And as mainstream America has grown to accept tasting menus, unexpected juxtapositions of flavors and textures, and chef/owner Thomas Keller's philosophy that the first bite of each dish is the best, the restaurant now seems far less revolutionary than comfortably excellent. Wine service is impeccable, and certain dishes, such as sea urchin atop apple granita, remain as startlingly good as cooking gets

Keller's approach has impacted restaurants nationwide, so it's no surprise to see poached egg atop hamachi sashimi at Auberge de Soleil, where the view over the valley is unparalleled. But the most innovative food in Napa may be at Terra, which has been open 18 years but still feels fresh. Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone met as line cooks at Spago, and what they do in the old stone building on St. Helena's Railroad Avenue is as daring in its way as Wolfgang Puck was in the 1980s.

Terra features Asian flavors, so it's not always red-wine friendly. Accordingly, the restaurant doesn't get the big-spending weekenders in to "do" wine country with trophy bottles and slabs of meat. Peruse the handwritten menu and rhapsodize about hamachi carpaccio with daikon sprouts and hijiki; capellini with trout and tobiko caviar; or spaghettini with tripe and butter beans.

These days, the best lunch in Napa Valley is down the block. If you've eaten at Cindy Pawlcyn's Mustard's, you know the quality and range of her cooking. But with Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, she shows a different side of her virtuosity. The food, best enjoyed al fresco beneath a century-old fig tree or rubbing elbows with local winemakers at the bar, is earthy and down-home, European-influenced but Mexican-inspired, and painstakingly executed. That means rabbit tostadas, stuffed piquillo peppers, mushroom tamales, duck burgers and perhaps the finest rendition of the Cobb salad available anywhere. A wide selection of interesting wines are served by the glass. Prices are modest. As one winery owner, a frequent customer, quipped, "It almost feels like Sonoma."

Sonoma can't compete with Napa's star power. But with Cyrus, inside the fancy Les Mars Hôtel, it finally has a restaurant that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco. Billed as Sonoma's French Laundry, Cyrus serves Japanese sea bream with pickled watermelon rind, and caramel soup with kettle-corn sorbet. Ice cubes are even customized for different Bourbons. Yet polo shirts work fine at dinner, and service seems effortless, as casual as a stroll in the square.

Cyrus anchors one side of Healdsburg's town square. Down the street is Dry Creek Kitchen, which is owned and operated by Aureole's Charlie Palmer, who has a home in Healdsburg. The food is very Palmer-esque (English pea soup, pan-seared foie gras, caramelized-shallot mashed potatoes), the wine list Sonoman, the feel casual but urbane. Around the corner, Bovolo is tucked into a gourmet food store. The wine glasses don't have stems—wine is treated as a European-style condiment—and service is informal. Food includes bacon from "naturally raised heirloom pigs" starring in pasta carbonara; fennel-sausage sandwich with caramelized onions; innovative pizzas; and cornmeal waffles at breakfast.

Though the epicenter of the county's dining scene has gravitated northward, the town of Sonoma offers a different charm. The Girl & The Fig, formerly of Glen Ellen, has moved its American bistro fare (roasted chicken with sunchokes; rabbit pappardelle; wild-mushroom soup) to a corner of Sonoma's square. Across the street, the Southern California—style feel of the new, 226-seat El Dorado Kitchen position it as the kind of friendly, occasionally raucous, place you'd visit in a group. But the unpretentious food, created and executed by former French Laundry sous chef Ryan Fancher, is so much better than at other restaurants of the type, you wonder if the casual atmosphere doesn't actually hold Fancher back. What he does with frisée and bacon or squab and peaches makes you yearn to see him spread his wings with unabashed fine dining.

Part of Sonoma's appeal is its vastness. That stumbled-upon, out-of-the-way restaurant can provide the best meal of your trip. But don't leave Mirepoix to chance. Tucked away on River Road in Windsor, it's cozy, warm and witty. It's open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., giving the taster a chance to fill up on well-executed renditions of bistro food, such as braised lamb tongue, frogs' legs Provençale and pan-roasted halibut in a pastis broth. It's just the kind of understated approach Sonoma does so well.

Cigar Aficionado's editors would like to direct you to two additional dining standouts. Tra Vigne is a Napa institution that features authentic Italian cuisine such as bucatini with poached tuna and tuna tartar, and smoked and braised short ribs with polenta.

The Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America features an ever-changing menu of fresh seafood such as a basil and prosciutto-wrapped salmon accompanied by local produce. It's worth the trip.

—B.S.


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