Blind Tasting: A Little Napa and a Sip of Sonoma

Susan Spinello | The Certifiable Sommelier |

Every wine lover has a fantasy wine tour.  Many will spend weeks and months planning, even going so far as to call  on the exact day one month prior to your desired date, to maybe get your phone call answered at French Laundry.  Or perhaps your Holy Grail is a private tasting with Napa royalty, Heidi Peterson Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame.  The rise of elusive cult wines and the people who can afford them has paved way for the “money is no object” clientele, but it’s also a warm and welcoming atmosphere for just plain folks…because that’s how Napkins (indigenous Napa people) make you feel.  Whether you’re at Gott’s Roadside having a renowned Ahi burger and a Three Twins locally sourced organic Madagascar Vanilla shake, or you’re bellied up to the tasting room bar at the famed “Judgment of Paris” winery, Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, everyone around you are just folks. Napkins don’t care if their guest is Gavin Newsom, Drew Barrymore or you (at least they let you think that).  We’re all just folks out to enjoy some beautiful vistas and taste something that just sings with your senses.  You don’t “go” to Napa, you “experience” Napa, and you can leave the jet at home.

Both Napa and Sonoma are so incredibly close to the Bay area, that sometimes an over-nighter will do the trick to transform you and leave you with everlasting memories and some change left in your pocket.  The list of vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms stagger the imagination (and there’s enough staggering to be had in Northern California wine country).  It is near impossible to complete a must-do list, and if you’ve never been, you will feel like a five year old kid being dropped into the middle of the Magic Kingdom.  I am that 5 year old kid!  I certainly didn’t spend weeks or months planning, but I’ve been planning on going my entire life.  Fortunately, I had a wish list that I could only wish for, compiled by the professional and charming, award winning publicist, Julie Ann Kodmur, who has worked in wine public relations in Northern California since 1988.  It didn’t hurt that my traveling companion was Left Magazine’s very own Director of Operations and Senior Photographer, Jeff Kaluzny, who has overseen numerous projects in Napa and Sonoma…and he knows his wine.

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Driving North on Route 29 or the Silverado Trail is jaw-dropping.  It’s like going down the aisles at your favorite wine shop, where you’re prone to get whiplash amongst cries of “Can we go there?” every quarter of a mile or so, as you pass iconic names like Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyards, Charles Krug, Cakebread, Sterling, Domaine Chandon, and just so many more large and small boutique wineries intermingled.  There are so many tasting and tour combinations it makes a Rubik’s Cube look simple.  But there is no right or wrong winery or vineyard to go visit, each one is a separate and unique experience.  Ask the same question of half a dozen winemakers, you are bound to get half a dozen different answers.

Turn off Route 29 in Yountville to Washington Street and you will be transposed.   As you drive down Washington Street,  you will come upon a charming Tuscan-inspired stone house inviting you to Silver Trident Winery, completely furnished with Ralph Lauren Home decor and all available for purchase.  This showcase tasting home has three gorgeous rooms downstairs and an upstairs.  The art and furnishings are exquisite, from the place settings and chandelier to the comfy $7000 leather chairs, it can all be yours.  Owners Bob Binder and Walter Jost are no strangers to uncompromised elegance.  Bob is co-founder of the luxurious Oceania Cruises where culinary is regarded as the finest at sea collaborated by food icon Jacques Pepin, known to have said that “wine is the sauce”.  Swiss-born Walter tends to each row of the estate vineyard each day, inspecting the vines and enjoying its bounty.  Together they have carefully curated their vision of exceptional wines masterfully paired with small delectable bites by local artisan chef Sarah Scott, former executive chef at Robert Mondavi Winery and famed writer of the critically acclaimed cookbook The Wild Table.

We were met by our hosts Shane Soldinger and Mallory Uran and a glass of 2015 Apollo’s Folly Rose made from 100% Pinot Noir from grapes sourced from the Sonoma Coast.  This clean, crisp taste burst with bright fresh berries and tropical flavors which leave you wanting more.  Fermentation is sur lie which results in a creamy texture and great body.  20% is fermented in neutral French Oak which gives it structure and balance.  This is Silver Trident’s third release of this highly allocated 200 case wine only available through their wine club.  At 14.1% alcohol, this wine is nothing to sneeze at.

We settled into the Dining Room for our tasting and were joined by winemaker Kari Auringer.  Kari is a legend in that rock star kind of way.  She been creating incredible wines and on the winemaking teams behind cult wineries like Scarecrow, Lindstrom, Hollywood and Vine and Keever for over 14 years.  There we tried four wines, layered in complexity and finessed in style, that can only be described as luxury for the palate.

2014 Symphony No. 9  – Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is a “crescendo of incredible elegance, complexity and depth”.  This is a solid, structured sauvignon blanc with bright acidity, crisp citrus fruit like lemons and orange peel zest.  It sings on your tongue like a lemon cream tart with fresh white peach and apricot.  The minerality is elegantly restrained and the 30% neutral oak, not commonly found in sauvignon blanc, brings balance to an often tart varietal.  If I could only bring one bottle home from each winery, this is Silver Tridents shining star.

2013 Benevolent Dictator – Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir  “Bold, yet balanced, firm, yet kind.  A likable powerful, authority”.  Boysenberry, ripe Bing cherries and baking spices.  Cola berry, root beer, black licorice and savory spices. Layer after layer of Russian River deliciousness.

2012 Playing With Fire – Napa Valley Red Blend  “Take some chances, break a few rules and every so often, play with fire”.  Sourced from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 40%, Malbec 40% and Syrah 20% in combination with experimenting with different barrel toasts and fermentation temperatures have led to some amazing results.  Ripe black fruit like blackberries, black cherries and black currant, along with black licorice and plums amidst velvety, soft tannins.

2012 Twenty Seven Fathoms – Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon  “…gets its name from the depth of the Panama Canal – the feat of bold creativity that opened a door between the Old World and the New World”.  Ripe black fruit with dark cocoa and sweet vanilla, dense and rich, juicy with lush, medium tannins.  This new world wine drinks like an old world classic.  It is 100% cabernet sauvignon and aged in  100% French Oak (70% new).  This may all seem wine geeky – but it’s interesting to know how a great wine is made, and this is a great wine.

Silver Trident is a true gem.  The beauty, the hospitality, the wine and pairings, all truly set the stage for a magnificent tasting.  The tasting fee for Silver Trident is $25 for four unparalleled wines with small bite food pairing (refundable with a purchase of $100 or more).  They are open daily 11:00am – 7:00pm and have an intimate loft space available for private events by appointment.  Reservations are highly recommended to truly enjoy all this magnificent winery/showroom has to offer.

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Our next adventure was about 35 minutes further northwest.  Just past the town of St. Helena, and a few more bouts of whiplash later, we travelled up the steep, rugged 5 mile incline of Spring Mountain Road to the Vineyards of Smith-Madrone.  Pulling onto the long dirt driveway up to the barn 1800 feet high. It was time for a wardrobe change.  Adorned in boots, jeans and a tee shirt, we were about to meet the legendary Smith brothers.   Founded in 1971 by Stuart Smith, and joined two years later by winemaker and brother, Charlie, Smith-Madrone has been producing award winning and authentic wines since 1977.  This year marks their 45th anniversary of superior excellence in winemaking.

Upon entering the barn, Charlie was finishing up a tasting for a small group of five.  We wandered around the property under the watchful eyes of Curly, the Springer Spaniel who was just doing a less than stellar job of guarding the premises.  The vantage view from this over 200 acre property situated in the Mayacamas Mountains above the fog is breathtaking.  Surrounded by Madrone and Fir trees and framed with 120 year old Picholine Olive trees, feels like a throwback in time.  Charlie and Stu are a bit of a throwback in time as well, sporting beards and UC Berkeley educations in the late 60’s.  They are direct descendants of German farmers, the Fetherolf family, who came to America in 1730, and are continuing the tradition with Assistant Winemaker Sam Smith, Stu’s son.   Each portion of the vineyard is carefully selected to optimize the best of each grape varietal.  Currently there is close to 40 acres under vine.   Riesling is planted on 35 degree slopes facing east, chardonnay faces the cool north, cabernet sauvignon faces the south and west to optimize sun exposure and merlot and cabernet franc are dispersed accordingly to maximize the cool, mountain climate.

There is something unique about the lay of the land and the spacing of the vines, something that is sought after, but can only be achieved by authentic farmers and longevity in the business.  Smith-Madrone captures that and more, as evidenced by their superior wines and highly sought after Cook’s Flat Reserve.  Charlie revved up his 4 wheeler high-speed golf cart and took us around the property with Curly close behind…for a while.  There is a unique 8 acre block of vines known as Cook’s Flat (named after George Cook, the first owner of the property) where a small production of the best of the best mountain fruit is grown.  Cook’s Flat was replanted in 1972 and the result is a very special Cabernet Reserve that will only be crafted in small batches and only in the best years.  Each Cook’s Flat Reserve bottle is wrapped in tissue which has been printed with a copy of the U.S. Land Office Patent granted to George Cook and signed by President Chester Arthur in 1885.  The original is on display at the winery.

All of Smith-Madrone wines are estate grown and estate bottled.  So what is the secret?  Is it the Red Aiken soil?  The vineyard orientation?  Canopy management?  Altitude?  Or is the secret in the winemaking itself?  Age and experience really is a virtue.  So back to the tasting barn/winery where the second half of the journey picks up.

2014 Chardonnay is 100% barrel fermented and aged in 100% new French oak for 9 months and yet it is so refined and delicious that it’s as if some magic has occurred, but don’t tell Stu about pixie dust…this is all raw talent. Spice and apples with tropical papaya, lush mango, pear and almonds with a big mouthfeel and long lingering finish.  It’s big and buttery with just the right amount of oak.

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is a hidden gem and the perfect wine for your barbecue.  Open up and decant while you wait for your medium rare ribeye or peppercorn crusted lamb to grill.  Rich red and black fruit with notes of savory clove and smoky cigar box.  Mocha, black pepper and green olives show on this terroir-driven, meaty Cabernet Sauvignon, yet like all the Smith-Madrone wines tasted, it is well balanced with a lingering finish.

2010 Cook’s Flat Reserve is a highly allocated 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc reserve wine that displays generous dark fruit, cassis and tobacco leaf.  It has solid tannins and is exceptionally poised to lay down for another 10 plus years.  But this wine is drinking fabulously right now.  Upon commenting on the rich style and finesse in which this wine was crafted, Charlie replied, “Oh Hell, let’s break open a bottle of the 2009”, and thus a new love entered my life.

2009 Cook’s Flat Reserve also highly allocated and held back, released after the 2010, is pure gold.  64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc and 14% Merlot, it sees 18 months in new French white oak, and is layer upon layer of dark fruit, black cherry, blackberry, cocoa, espresso and baking spice.  It’s more fruit-forward, but exceptionally integrated, and can lay down another 20 years, but I’m not going to chance it.

2014 Riesling is “a dry Riesling that has been grown and produced from the same vineyard, pruned by the same people in the same style and left to Mother Nature to impart annually distinct flavors, scents and character”.  The Smith brothers have been growing and producing Riesling since 1983 (about 17 years before the rest of California attempted to jump on the bandwagon).  It has been hailed as one of the 50 best wines in the world according to Stuart Pigott, author of “The Best White Wine on Earth:  The Riesling Story”.  Orange blossom, jasmine and honeysuckle with lemon zest and crisp minerality, followed by white peach and pear with a creamy, lingering finish.  Perhaps this is the best Riesling on Earth and why Charlie saved the best for last.

Smith-Madrone graciously hosts tastings by appointment only on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 11am and 2pm.  Located at 4022 Spring Mountain Road, it’s a little off the beaten path, but well worth a visit and an experience that will linger long after the wine is gone.  There is a chalkboard sign in the winery bearing the poetry of Eduardo Galeano:  “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine”.  Yes, please!

Winding back down to the town of Yountville, we bypassed an invitation to Long Meadow Ranch where the industry professional’s bluegrass barbeque was going on and the only requirement was to bring a bottle of bubbles.  I had bubbles of a different kind in mind…Jacuzzi bubbles!  So after a delicious home-style cooked Italian meal at Ciccio and tiramisu to die for, I got my bubbles on and a good night’s rest for our next escapade.

There is something different about waking up in Napa.  The air is more refreshing, the sun shines a little brighter, and the prospect of drinking more amazing wine waits right around the corner.  The Joy of Wine:  Rombauer Vineyards in St. Helena is nestled on a tree-covered knoll that overlooks the Mayacamas, just off the Silverado Trail.   Founders Koerner and Joan Rombauer moved their family to Napa in 1972 and the Rombauer family continues to produce big, lush, storybook wines through the ownership and operation of three generations and the master craftsmanship of Australian winemaker, Richie Allen, whose tutelage under top Australian and New Zealand producers include Penfolds, Oakridge, Church Road and Vavasour.  Richie has been spreading his wings at Rombauer for almost a dozen years and after tasting Rombauer wines, you’ll know exactly why.


Sitting on the porch of this beautiful property, one can only wonder why they haven’t come here sooner.  The wines enjoy a glorious reputation and the art and science that goes on behind the bottle is astounding.  We were met by the vivacious and talented Director of Marketing and Consumer Relations, Brandye Alexander (Yes, her first drink was a brandy alexander) and led upstairs above the tasting room bar where she shared a little bit of the fascinating history of the Rombauer family.  Director of Viticulture and Winemaking, Richie Allen, joined us and led us on a journey of the senses followed by a journey underground.

Our tour of the winery started in the de-stemming area, where a high frequency berry separator is used.  The next high tech pieces of equipment are the optical sorting machines (they own two, which is unheard of).  Each berry is selected based on exact size, shape and color desired.  All Rombauer Cabernet Sauvignon is fermented in barrels using French oak, while the zinfandel is all American new oak and the white wines use a combination of both.  Then it’s on to the barrel room, a labyrinth of caves that extend for what seems like miles, where the barrel rest on rollers that allow the barrels to be rotated instead of punching down during the fermentation process.   When the tannic structure hits perfection, the barrels are emptied and the skins pressed in a barrel press, the barrels are pressure washed and the wine that was fermented in that barrel is put back in the same barrel, minus the skins, to age gracefully.   It’s all extremely sophisticated and fascinating even if you’re not a high tech wizard.

2015 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc is “fresh and enticing” with ripe lime, grapefruit and pear on the nose and white nectarine and tropical notes on the palate.  The finish is crisp and zesty leaving you wanting more.  This relatively new varietal in the portfolio is a huge fan-favorite, and I am a fan.

2014 Carneros Chardonnay is a legend unto itself.  This is the same big, butter bomb that is juicy and fruit-driven.  Overripe peaches and pineapple followed by hints of cedar and rich, creme brulee.  This is iconic California Chardonnay at its best and is so well balanced that some of the best winemakers can only strive to create this masterpiece.

2012 Carneros Merlot is fresh red, black and blue fruit all integrated with the addition of 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot to add balance and structure.  Predominately plum and cherry notes on the palate, this merlot is big, and almost completely fruit driven that is distinctively California.

2012 Diamond Selection Cabernet Sauvignon  has a deep purple hue with predominate black fruit; black currant and black cherry, with hints of spice and a big, bold finish.  The tannins are elegant and the long finish, is sublime.

2013 El Dorado Zinfandel is a mainstay classic.  This Estate Zinfandel exudes confidence with notes of dark fruit, clove and licorice.  On the palate, all those dark berries jump up and dance, and the party keeps going and going.  My first big, red was a Rombauer Zinfandel too many years ago than I would like to admit.  I remember thinking of raspberry pancakes with blackberry syrup topped with boysenberry preserves, or maybe it was the sugar/alcohol coma that ensued after.  Although I was new to good wine, I knew that Rombauer was synonymous with quality winemaking.  Tasting the same wine a decade and a half later, I experienced a more refined and integrated Rombauer Zinfandel.

Rombauer Vineyards has its own cult following, yet their wines are readily accessible. With six Estate vineyards and eight additional zinfandel vineyards, it’s all about solid relationships.  The history of the Rombauer family and wine production is vast and I encourage you to visit the timeline history on their web site: for more information.  Tastings are by appointment only from 10am to 5pm daily and are $25 for a flight of five wines.  Joy of Wine 2016 will be held on Saturday, July 30th from 11am to 4pm where Rombauer will celebrate the annual release of their Chardonnay.  Enjoy wine and food from local purveyors and live music.  Tickets are available at the door for $140 for general admission.  Rombauer Vineyards is located at 3522 Silverado Trail North in St. Helena.

After thoroughly enjoying Brandye and Richie’s hospitality (and being close to overstaying our welcome) we decided to stop by Castello di Amorosa for a brief but unique photo op.  This replica of a 13th Century medieval castle opened in 2007 and was the brainchild of 4th generation vintner Dario Sattui.  It is comprised of 107 rooms on 8 levels, complete with a moat, a drawbridge, defensive towers, an interior courtyard, a torture chamber and even an iron maiden from Nuremberg, Germany.  They host a list of proprietary Italian varietals in the tasting room with a food and wine pairing option for $75.  The tour lasts about two hours and would have turned our two-day getaway into a three day vacation.  It is a must see and I will on my next trip to the Diamond Mountain’s lower eastern slope.  Castello di Amorosa is proud to host the 11th Annual Festival Napa Valley July 15th through the 24thfeaturing performances by various artist as well as Cirque du Soleil, and the San Francisco Ballet.  Sign on to for complete details and be sure to visit this landmark work of art at 4045 St. Helena Highway in Calistoga.  Open seven days a week from 9:30am to 6pm, reservations are highly recommended for guided tours and tastings.


Route 128 runs through Napa, Alexander and Anderson Valley and along that route is Geyserville and the tasting room of one of Sonoma’s best kept secret…Route 128 Winery.  Meeting founders Pete and Lorna Opatz for the first time feels like you just arrived home.  Their hospitality and warmth resonate and then the fun begins.  The dynamic duo team are the winegrowers, winemakers and proprietors and with the recent partnership of Tom Fuchs, a former Alexander Valley winery owner, veteran national wine sales and marketing executive and lifelong friend of the Opatz, you can be sure that Route 128 Winery wines won’t be a secret for long.  I had the distinct pleasure of a private tasting with Tom Fuchs and his multi-talented, beautiful wife, Twyla, where we proceeded to imbibe on the Estate Bottled 2014 Viognier and the 2012 Estate Bottled Syrah, both from the Yorkville Highlands Estate which provide a combination of coastal mountain climate, weathered soils and elevation at 1400 feet.  The diurnal temperature and southern facing slopes create a vineyard that rivals some of the best in the world.  This boutique winery is doing some seriously interesting things with Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, like co-fermenting, which means instead of blending later, ferment the grapes together…why can’t they co-exist?

Lorna is in her element in the charming tasting room that feels like you should stop by every day just to say hello or play a game of shuffleboard, or savor some artisanal cheeses and wine.  Currently, Route 128 Winery has 11 wines to choose from.  There is a by-the-glass option and Club 128 members receive 20% off already wallet-friendly wines in the tasting room, but keep in mind that only two to six barrels of each wine are produced so allocation is tight.  Opatz Family Estate wines include the summertime favorite 2014 Viognier, the 2013 Zinfandel, the 2013 High Five Co-fermented Bordeaux Blend, my favorite 2012 Co-Exist Co-fermented Rhone Blend, the 2012 Blood Brothers Opatz & Bartalucci Estates (50% Syrah, 50% Petite Sirah), and the 2012 Syrah.  Non estate wines include the 2014 Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2014 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, 2012 Petite Syrah and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley.

Route 128 Winery tasting room is open Thursday and Sunday noon to 5pm, Friday and Saturday noon to 6pm and is a great location for small group gatherings upon availability.  Located at 21079 Geyserville Avenue in Geyserville.  Tell Lorna I sent you.

There are so many vineyards and wineries and tasting rooms to visit and with so many choices, you have to just pick a few and enjoy the experience.  Decide if you want to go to a winery that you know the wine already, or a famed tasting room or someplace that you can only get the wine directly from the winery.  Find out if they have tastings and tours.  How much is a tasting?  Do you need an appointment?  There is no right or wrong winery to go to and it’s wise to take your time enjoying what each venue brings to the table.

No wine getaway would be complete without a stop at Nimble & Finn’s Ice Cream Parloura repurposed old bank on Main Street in Guerneville in Sonoma.  If you have to go home, might as well have some ice cream.  The lavender honeycomb is worth the drive off the main road home, and Guerneville is a hip and funky little town that seems like it’s always been that way.  Go into the vault and have your picture taken, everyone looks good with ice cream.

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