Embarking on a lengthy journey up the coast, we traded the laid-back rhythms of Santa Barbara (read about the first leg of our trip here) for the blend of natural beauty and high-end flair that is Napa. We'd wake to the ocean fog casting a blanket over the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, only to be burnt away by the afternoon sun, leaving bright sky. This daily dance of fog and sun leaves its unique imprint on the wines, bringing out an unparalleled character.
Winding our way up to the fog-kissed peaks of Atlas Peak and the untamed wilderness of Mount Veeder, we met with our mountaintop maestros: Kongsgaard, Mayacamas, and Smith-Madrone. Perched among the clouds, these producers make wines that marry complexity with a bright energy, each bottle a true reflection of its origin.
Down in the valley, in St. Helena, we visited Cathy Corison of Corison Winery. Cathy, a Napa trailblazer, works with old vines to craft world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Though her vines are rooted in the valley floor, her commitment to balanced, expressive wines mirrors that of our mountaintop winemakers. Just a stone's throw away, we made our way to Long Meadow Ranch, a Tuscan-inspired gem that champions organic and responsible farming, cultivating not just vineyards, but olive orchards, fruit and vegetable gardens, and livestock.
Next, our voyage led us to the patchwork of vineyards across Sonoma, a region distinct yet deeply connected to its illustrious neighbour. Here, tradition mingles with innovation, seen in producers like Arnot-Roberts and Kutch Wines, and the boundary-pushing Enfield, Alma Fria, and Jolie Laide. From Sonoma's rolling hills to Napa's mountains and valleys, our producers, though diverse in their locations and styles, share one common thread: an unwavering commitment to making wines that champion subtlety and finesse, each bottle an authentic expression of place.
Finally, on our way back to Santa Barbara, we made a worthwhile detour to the Santa Cruz Mountains to visit Mount Eden Vineyards, a historic winery renowned for its tradition-meets-innovation approach to crafting exemplary Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Kongsgaard: the viking on the mountain
Navigating our way up the winding roads of Napa Valley, we reached the lofty heights of Atlas Peak. It was here, amidst breathtaking panoramas, that we met the legendary John Kongsgaard. His vineyard, high up in this famed AVA, is picture perfect. John, who has been a beacon in Californian viticulture since the 1980s, welcomed us into his wine cave — a captivating cellar meticulously carved into the hillside. In this enchanting setting, amidst the cool, cave air, we tasted his remarkable range of wines, not least among them the revered 'The Judge.' As the tasting concluded, John led us through his vineyard, with his loyal dogs accompanying, pointing towards the distant shimmer of the San Francisco skyline.
John's winemaking philosophy is rooted in old-school European practices, reflecting his time spent in Burgundy. Imagine techniques such as native yeast fermentation, extended maceration, and barrel ageing in French oak. This approach, combined with a commitment to high-quality, low-yield fruit, gives life to wines that marry profound depth with trademark elegance. Our visit transcended a mere wine tasting; it was a lesson from a modern luminary of Californian wine. John's impact has not only influenced the contemporary wine landscape of the state but promises to guide its future for many vintages to come.
mayacamas: out of the ashes
Our afternoon visit to Mayacamas Vineyards, located high in the Mount Veeder district, was a particular highlight. After a journey up steep mountain roads, some still bearing the scars of recent floods, we arrived amidst harsh patches of charred trees – a sobering reminder of the 2017 wildfires that raged across the hillsides, destroying their tasting room and necessitating a complete rebuild. Yet, this historic estate, established more than a century ago, remains undaunted. Mayacamas continues to flourish, producing eloquent and age-worthy wines.
Located in the crater of an extinct volcano, at an altitude of 550-750m, the estate enjoys a unique terroir. Under the guidance of the Schottenstein family and head winemaker Andy Erickson, Mayacamas continues to uphold its tradition of crafting deeply expressive wines, showcasing a blend of vibrancy and varietal purity reminiscent of old Claret, Burgundy, and Barolo. A tour of their winery proved enlightening, as we tasted some outstanding back vintages, including a 2001 Chardonnay and a 2003 Cabernet, both still going strong. Despite the trials of nature, Mayacamas remains a symbol of resilience, producing wines that are as distinctive and captivating as the landscape from which they originate.
Smith-madrone: timeless classics
Visiting Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain was like stepping into a well-preserved wine-making time capsule. This is a place where old-school reigns supreme, presided over by brothers Stuart and Charles Smith. Their hands-on, no-nonsense approach is a refreshing contrast to the often high-tech, heavily marketed operations of some modern wineries.
We navigated their steep mountainside vineyards in a Gator (a small 4X4) - trailed by their energetic young Spaniel, Jackson, who showed a particularly daring interest in the vehicle's wheels. With tangible pride, Stuart introduced us to the local wildlife and breathtaking views of the Napa Valley floor. With a steely resilience, the brothers shared their gripping tale of defending their property against wildfires.
We were showcased an impressive line-up of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet wines. These wines demonstrated an enviable longevity, a tribute to the Smith brothers' winemaking acumen and their top-notch, high-altitude fruit.
Smith-Madrone isn't just any winery. It's a celebration of traditional winemaking practices, resilience in the face of nature, and an undying passion for fine wine that the Smith brothers have kept alive since 1971.
cathy corison: The queen of napa cabernet
Back on the valley floor, the morning fog set the mood as we walked through Cathy Corison's age-old Cabernet vines. Amidst Napa's mega-estates, her artisanal, authentic approach to viticulture has captured the hearts of wine lovers world wide. Seated amongst her iconic Kronos vines, we tasted through a range of her '19 and '20 wines. With over 40 years in the game, Cathy's commitment to balanced winemaking shines through, grounded in her deep knowledge of the land. In a valley of giants, Corison remains a beacon of classic Napa winemaking.
LONG MEADOW RANCH: FIELD TO table
We kicked off our visit to Long Meadow Ranch with a warm greeting from Chris, the co-owner and CEO, arriving in style in his classic Series Two Land Rover. Our journey through the ranch unveiled Organic vegetable patches, vast stretches of Sauvignon Blanc vines, and a glance at their award-winning herd of highland cattle. Beyond the vines, the old-world charm of their stone olive press emphasised that Long Meadow Ranch is more than just a top-tier wine producer. Rejuvenated by the Hall family in 1989, the estate seamlessly blends its rich heritage with forward-thinking, sustainable farming methods.
The grand finale was a mouth-watering meal at the ranch's eatery. Every bite, from the fresh oysters to the delicious steak tartare, was thoughtfully complemented by their signature wines. If you ever find yourself in Napa Valley, the restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch is a must-visit for an authentic farm-to-table dining experience.
alma fria: a coastal pioneer
We enjoyed an in-depth tasting session with Carroll Kemp, the proud founder and winemaker of Alma Fria, located in the brand-new West Sonoma Coast AVA. Kemp's deep-seated passion for the region and conviction in its capacity to produce a uniquely expressive style of wine were palpable. Through Alma Fria, Carroll is committed to unveiling the complexity of the terroir via organic farming and natural winemaking processes, resulting in elegant, site-expressive Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Carroll’s ambition extends beyond creating some of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, recently embarking on an intriguing sparkling rosé project and nurturing a solera of Chardonnay base wine for the past seven years... watch this space!
ENFIELD WINES: FROM GUITARS TO GRAPES
(Wines coming late September)
We met John Lockwood, the creative force behind Enfield Wines, outside his co-operative winemaking warehouse in Santa Rosa. This humble setting is where John crafts truly captivating wines with unmistakable finesse. At first glance, John might seem more like a craft brewer than a traditional winemaker, but beneath that laid-back façade lies an impressive pedigree, including a physics background and stints at top-tier vineyards.
Far from being a part of the millionaire winemaking aristocracy, John is spearheading a new wave of vintners, eager to express a sense of place in their wines, even on a tight budget. His winemaking philosophy is deeply rooted in the vineyards he selects. Seeking out vineyards that genuinely reflect their soil, age, climate, and that elusive quality of 'place', the result is a selection of wines with a rare fusion of structure and grace. They're not about flaunting celebrity status or muscular potency; instead, they offer depth, deliciousness, and a genuine reflection of their origins.
John's light touch in the winery, using wild yeasts and allowing natural fermentation, aligns with his goal to produce wines whose voice is pure, unhurried, and clear. He's no Napa millionaire flogging pricey, boastful Cabernets. Instead, he's a shining exemplar of the potential for a new generation of terroir-focused vintners. By focusing his resources on less heralded vineyards, he presents wines that beautifully balance simplicity and complexity.
A NEW VINEYARD FOR JAMIE KUTCH
The joy of working with Jamie Kutch extends far beyond our shared love for wine. Our recent visit to his new vineyard in California was truly an experience to remember. Jamie, ever the gracious host, whisked us around his newly acquired vineyard on quad bikes, the ultimate form of vineyard transport! We got to witness first-hand the fruits of his commitment to sustainable agriculture; in the form of a worm farm, active bee hives, flourishing orchard and rare oak trees.
As one of the first Californian producers we imported to the UK, it's always been fascinating to see Jamie's progress and the evolution of his winemaking philosophy. The passion he holds for his craft was as palpable as ever during this visit, his excitement for his own vineyard completely infectious.
His ambitions remain unabated; with plans for the establishment of a winery and tasting room on his new site. There is also the promise of the fruits of his own vineyard, ready to be savoured in just a few years' time. Jamie's journey from stock trader to renowned vintner, constantly seeking to innovate and improve, has been nothing short of inspirational.
jolie-laide: UNCONVENTIONAL beauty
Amidst the hum of ongoing construction, we visited Scott and Jenny Schultz's brand new winery in Santa Rosa, a concrete sign of their growing achievements in the industry. Navigating through the beautiful chaos, we were able to sample their remarkable wines, with anticipation to share these with you building up.
Jolie-Laide, translated as 'Pretty-Ugly', a term of endearment in French, encapsulates the unconventional beauty of their wines. Scott, initially a Chicago native, ignited his passion for winemaking after a move to Napa in 2007. Starting as a wine director at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Napa Valley, his curiosity led him to explore the winemaking process. He went on to become the cellar master at Realm Winery, working with Arnot-Roberts and Pax Mahle on the Pax and Wind Gap labels. In 2010, he made the leap to start his own project, Jolie-Laide.
Together with his partner Jenny, they subscribe to a 'less is more' ethos. Their minimalist approach, fuelled by sustainably sourced fruit and a natural talent for winemaking, results in consistently delicious wines. Each label changes yearly, celebrating the uniqueness of each vintage and their commitment to keeping each bottling distinct.
Their portfolio, comprising a range of whites and reds, champions unconventional beauty and diversity, with each bottle encapsulating a sense of place and time. From floral and savoury Trousseau Gris to the exceptionally complex Pinot Gris, their wines are reminiscent of an era when California wasn't solely dominated by Pinot, Cabernet, and Chardonnay vines, and when wines were delightfully light on their feet and deliciously unpretentious. Scott and Jenny Schultz do what they love, and they do it brilliantly.
arnot-roberts: 100 well-deserved points
In the midst of a sweltering California day, Duncan Arnot welcomed us into the refreshing calm of his barrel hall. It was here that we tasted some of the most striking and captivating wines of our trip - each a testament to the passion and skill that shapes Arnot-Roberts.
Arnot-Roberts, co-founded by childhood friends Nathan Roberts and Duncan Arnot-Meyers in 2001, has heralded a new era in California's wine history. Central figures in the 'New California Wine' movement, they have bravely championed higher-acid, less ripe wines that fly in the face of tradition.
A living embodiment of terroir, their wines expertly reflect the diversity of California's landscapes. From their choice of unique, under-appreciated vineyard sites stretching from Mendocino to Santa Cruz Mountains, to their adventurous exploration of both classic and esoteric varietals, their approach is as ground-breaking as it is personal.
Low-intervention winemaking allows the vibrant characteristics of each site to truly shine through. The resulting wines are texturally remarkable, vibrantly acidic, and aromatically expressive, capturing the essence of California's eclectic terroirs. The wines we tasted were outstanding - from the ethereal Chardonnay to the spellbinding, Antonio Galloni-endorsed 100-point 2021 Que Syrah.
The Arnot-Roberts approach is both inspiring and future-facing - they're certainly a winery to watch as their wines become increasingly sought-after and scarce. The visit was a compelling glimpse into the future of California's wine scene.
mt eden: a hill-top wine oasis
Driving over the fog-covered Golden Gate Bridge, our next stop was Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As we ascended, the fog cleared, unfolding a panoramic view of Silicon Valley spread out below.
Nestled in an over-looked region, capable of producing world-class wines, Mount Eden Vineyards are a testament to the longevity of traditional winemaking. Established in the 1940s by Martin Ray and now thriving under the watchful eye of Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson, their philosophy is simple: let the land speak through the wine.
The vines here, some dating back to the vineyard's inception, yield Chardonnay, Pinot, and Cabernet Sauvignon of unique character and elegance. The wines are striking, a compelling mix of Californian style and complexity that underline just why this region is so criminally underrated.