Napa Valley is known as being one of the worlds most prestigious wine growing regions. They are home to notable names such as Dominus Estate, Opus One, Domaine Carneros, Stags' Leap, and others alike. In my recent trip to the Golden State, I was planning to put my most serious sommelier shoes on and prep myself to taste through lineups of bold, bodacious whites and reds. However, I was completely mistaken.
I met like-minded people who thought earnestly about their terroir and vineyard sites. The bold, overripe reds that I expected to taste, were replaced with beautifully balanced, high acid and incredibly structured wines. I’m not saying they are delicate Loire Valley Cabernet Franc styles, but they certainly took me on an unexpected journey in terms of warm climate, California wines.
Stop One: Duckhorn Vineyards
Upon arrival, you are greeted by a quaint looking home with a wraparound veranda and a secret garden tucked in behind the house. It’s worth the short trip up to St. Helena just to explore the grounds and do a tasting lead by their knowledgeable and passionate staff. While many would argue that Duckhorn Vineyards isn’t much of a hidden gem, I think the hidden part is that feeling of sitting in your backyard, sipping on their single vineyard, terroir-driven reds, listening to the whispering of the trees and vines.
Top Wines of the Day
Merlot Three Palms 2018: 89% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, ½ % Petit Verdot. This wine is an incredibly juicy experience. Lots of fresh dark fruit and a little bit of underripe red fruit, with buried structure of baking spices that envelope the nose. Cinnamon and clove from the French oak barrels enhance the dark flavours; reminding me of bumbleberry pie from the middle of August. Grown on volcanic soils this Merlot has a chance to ripen during the day and the night as its soil retains the California heat. Definitely a wine that will change and evolve in the bottle over the years. A must-have addition to your cellar.
Monitor Ledge Cabernet Sauvignon 2017: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. The wine itself has lots of red fruit, some huckleberry and shows the minerality of the vineyard site it’s grown on. There is a vegetal tone to it, pine and a little bit of old spearmint are subtle undertones, all wrapped together beautifully with light tobacco smoke. This wine has great potential for age and is something any red lover should have a few bottles of!
Stop Two: The Charter Oak
Next stop was The Charter Oak, in the picturesque town of St. Helena. I stopped in for lunch on the recommendation of some locals who told me I must try the burger. It was the most perfect burger I have ever had. Cooked to a delightful medium-rare, coated in melted cheese, topped on a beautiful bun. Nothing complex, just really high-quality ingredients. I ordered a grilled avocado to spread across the house made sourdough and paired it with the in-house cured butter. Both were washed down with a glass of local white, and a spicy margarita. The Charter Oak has a winery attached to the restaurant, so you could double down if you have the time! All in all, the service, the atmosphere, the food, and the wine were well worth the visit.
Stop Three and Four: Darioush Cellars and Ashes & Diamonds
The journey continued back down toward the actual town of Napa Valley, where I stopped in at Darioush Cellars. Darioush may not be a hidden gem, but its sister property Ashes & Diamonds really was a find that I fell in love with. Darioush is home to big, well-structured reds that have the potential to last for decades and Ashes & Diamonds is arguably the complete opposite. Restraint would be their middle name if you could replace the ‘&’ symbol. The philosophy behind Ashes & Diamonds is incredibly organic. Focusing on terroir, their environmental stewardship and biodynamic farming has this incredible team hitting all the right notes. It’s a style of wine that I think the future of California will be consuming for years to come.
Top Wine of the Day
Rancho Pequeño Cabernet Sauvignon 2017: Greatest surprise yet! This wine has a delicate floral nose, that follows up with scrumptious red fruit and a complexity of faint spicy jalapeño. The palate is restrained, elegant, and screams with minerality. Oak is present but very well integrated. It will last for years to come, but can be drunk with a quick decant in minutes.
Ashes & Diamonds
Culinary Rec of the Trip
We rounded out our evening over in Yountsville for dinner. Home to French Laundry and Bouchon among other Michelin star options, Yountsville is where the rich and famous come to stay and play. Regardless of the reputation, there are still some hidden gems and a quaint vibe to the famous town. Amongst all of these names is an Italian Bistro called Ciccio. With a rotating menu full of fresh ingredients from Altamura Ranch, we indulged in a margarita pizza to start, which could not have been more classic and delicious after a day of tasting. We then moved to the house Caesar salad and their special for the evening which was a black squid ink seafood linguini covered with colourful farm veggies. Some 2013 Nebbiolo from Altamura Vineyards & Winery wrapped up the perfect meal and honestly had me glowing. Taking a walk through this charming town, hearing the laughter and clinking glasses of fine wine from outdoor patios really lifted the soul.