Crane Family Vineyards: small, special, and unique winery to visit

IMG_1778Only 5 minutes from The Inn On First, a romantic Napa Bed and Breakfast Inn, is the Crane Family Vineyards Estate.  Sitting on a small hillside, overlooking parts of the city of Napa and the surrounding hillsides, you appreciate that this is a great place to live.  In the back of this small property is a barn that serves as the winery, where the Cranes have been producing wine for over 20 years.  These are the gems we long to find and so appreciate when they come our way.

Tom CraneTom Chiarella, son of the founders of the winery (Crane is his mother’s maiden name), is now running the operation and after a tour of the property invites you to sit on the front porch and to taste their wines.  An affable fellow who makes you feel comfortable and welcome immediately, he recreates for you a bit of the history of the land, its owners (his parents), and his years in Napa Valley.  Over the course of conversation he pours you a glass of their estate Merlot, their Cabernet Sauvignon, Alison’s Cuvee (the winemaker’s play yard of wine with her Cabernet blend that changes every year), and the family Port.  These are unpretentious wines presented by an unpretentious host, and it makes for a unique Napa Valley winery experience.  They make few cases and don’t have many appointments to offer, but for the wine enthusiast looking to purchase wine Tom is always willing to share a part of his day with you.  Prices range from $35 for the Port, and $50 to $80 for their other wines.

By the time your visit is over you will forget that you are so close to the city of Napa.  You will be enthralled with the views, the ambience, the friendliness, and the wines.  You will understand why we love Napa and its residents.  Definitely a gem not to be missed.




Porter Family Vineyards: part of the new Coombsville AVA

Porter Family Coombsville AVA Porter Family VineyardsOnly ten minutes from The Inn On First, a premier lodging Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa, is the Coombsville AVA (American Viticultural Area), the newest appellation to be brought into the Napa Valley fold.  We have had guests visit wineries there and one that stood out was Porter Family Vineyards.  Set into the hillside, you walk along the vines, tour the property, and do the tasting in the cave.  With such beautiful views of Napa Valley, it is hard to leave once you’ve been there, especially when you have a glass of their Atlas Peak Cabernet in hand!

From the hillside vineyards and underground winery, the Family makes small amounts of beautifully hand-crafted wines—each one carrying the unique signature of this place. They retain the fossilized footprints of the sandpiper found on the property as a reminder of the incredible history of the winegrowing site, as they turn their heads to the future and the latest in winemaking arts to craft our special wines.

We had an opportunity to try their Syrah with light cherry notes and light pepper.  It brought to mind a juicy grilled pork chop that I would love to pair with this wine.  The 1st Cabernet we tried had cinnamon-spice notes with a bit of smokiness.  I liked it a lot.  We moved onto their signature Sandpiper Red, a Cabernet-Merlot blend that had lovely black licorice flavors and notes of spice.  It was their Atlas Peak Cabernet that we loved most of all.  It was like having a cherry cough drop in your mouth- I loved it!  Wines range from $40 to $70 dollars.

Tudal: a lovely setting with some really nice wines


Just a 20-minute drive from The Inn On First, a romantic Bed and Breakfast inn in Napa, lies Tudal Vineyards.  Now into their 5th decade operating the iconic Tudal Winery in St. Helena, Napa Valley, they proudly grow and produce a Signature (and world-class) wine “Tudal Estate Cabernet Sauvignon” on site from the estate vineyard that was planted in 1972.  Visitors of any age can find something to explore, whether it is the array of Napa Valley wines; our bocce court, the enticing flower and produce gardens or the collection of historic farm tractors, tools and bygone novelties that make up a fascinating agricultural retrospective.  And if they ask if you want to take any produce home during the Summer, just remember that your innkeeper-chef would love it if you wanted to drop something off in his kitchen!

Here we learned a bit more about maloactic fermentation.  We always associated it with “buttery” Chardonnays, but came to find out that it also adds a fullness or roundness to their Chardonnay.  It wasn’t buttery at all but felt fuller on our tongues, and had an aftertaste of warm buttered toast that I really enjoyed.  Their Zinfandel was bright with cherry flavor and a hint of pepper.  They also produce a Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet that had hints of caramel and dark red berries.  Of course we fell in love with their 100% estate Cabernet that is celebrating its 30 anniversary this year.  This is a lovely spot to do a tasting and to have a picnic afterward surrounded by their vineyards.

Final note: I am not a Rose fan.  They run either too dry or too sweet.  Suddenly I felt like Goldilocks and found that theirs was “just right” for me.  I bought 3 bottles for summer sipping.  Can’t wait for that warm weather to hit!  Prices range from $25 to $75.

IMG_0037 IMG_0039 IMG_0045 Tudal winery

What is going on with tasting fees at wineries? Will they be waived if I purchase?

I have a dream: every guest of The Inn On First can walk into a tasting room and say: “I’m from The Inn On First in Napa” and the Wine Educator would say: “Oh, you mean that fabulous romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn in Napa….well, then, I’ll waive your tasting fee!”  Ah, to dream.

Tasting fees in Napa can range from $10 on up to $60 or more per person at wineries and at the end of the day that can be pretty expensive.  Yet, when you consider that you typically get to taste 6 to 8 wines for $10 or $15 and don’t have to commit to a whole bottle, that is not so bad.  Or when you pay $60 to taste a selection of high-end wines you would only dream about because the price point of $150 to $250 per bottle or more is a serious commitment, it can minimize the impact or it can scare you away!  (Big smile here)  Wineries love to sell wine but you should never feel obligated to purchase, especially when you’ve paid a tasting fee, and should feel free to say: “no thanks”.  In a real sense, tasting fees give you a freedom you might otherwise experience around purchasing (or not) wine.

Luckily for Napkins (local Napa folk) most wineries share in the Good Neighbor program that provides free tasting when you show your local address on your driver’s license.  For all others, though, there is no rule in Napa about how tasting fees are set, and they do add up quickly.  Here are some general guidelines on what to expect:

If there are significant caves for you to view and walk through, expect to pay more in tasting fees.  I say significant because some wineries have built small caves that you can walk in and out of in three minutes or less.  Others have caves up to 10,000 square feet and include tours of the whole operation from crushing to the barrel room.  These tasting-tours can cost $40 to $50 per person.

If there are other things for you to see such as art galleries, car collections, stunning views, historical buildings, and/or tours through the vineyards, expect to pay more in tasting fees, anywhere in the $25 to $50 per person range.

If the wines at the winery are in the mid to high range ($100 on up), expect to pay more in tasting fees to cover the costs of the wines they are opening for you to try.  These could be in the $30 to $60 range.

Most tasting rooms, especially in larger wineries with walk-up bars, will charge in the lower range of $10 to $20 per person.  Some clearly post signs: “No tasting fee charged if you purchase a single bottle of wine.”

We’re fortunate with some of our business partners that we have 2 for 1 tasting cards, and in rare circumstances today, free tasting cards.  This can help alleviate the concerns for the budget-minded traveler, but it also severely limits where you can go and what you taste.  There is a big difference between the presenting wine that is offered for a free tasting at a winery versus the reserve wines you pay extra to taste, or the smaller production wines at small family owned wineries, or the highly specialized blended wines of upscale wineries.  For those who want an introduction to Napa only, the tasting passes work well.  For those who want to taste the best variety of wines Napa has to offer then paying the tasting fee is certainly worth it.

Will the fees be waived if you purchase?  No guarantee.  I’ve asked around and many wineries state that if a single person purchases two bottles or more, they will waive that individual’s tasting fee.  Others told me it would take a case of wine to waive the fee.  Still others charge the tasting fee whether or not you purchase.  A few admitted that if they like the people, had a good time, and enjoyed the guests’ company, they would waive the fee no matter what.  So what is the answer?

Our philosophy is simple: only purchase what we like to drink.  Expect to pay the tasting fee with no discounts.

Also- most importantly- ask!- with no expectation.

Ask about any case discounts?  Any club member discounts?  Are tasting room fees waived upon purchase?  Many wineries offer you that information, or will put the information on price sheets for you as well.  There is no shame in asking  And yes, always mention that Jim and Jamie sent you from The Inn On First.  If you’re lucky and they love us, they might offer you a discount.  If so, let me know! Maybe my dream is becoming reality!!

O’Brien Estate Winery: “Isn’t it romantic….”

Just a 5-minute drive from The Inn On First in Napa, a romantic Bed and Breakfast Inn, is a small, family-owned winery called O’Brien Estate Winery.  A small and intimate setting that sets the background for some really delicious wines.  Gathering in the O’Brien’s back yard, overlooking the vineyards all around, they pour you a glass of Sauvignon Blanc called “Fascination”.  As you sip on this aromatic, lightly acidic wine with subtle fruit flavor, they explain the naming convention for the wine: “Fascination represents the first moment of a relationship, when you just catch a glimpse of the person your are destined to marry. That glimpse can change your life.”  You soon come to understand that Bart and Barb O’Brien are expressing their own notion of romance through the labeling on each bottle, with a bit of poetry on the back written by them.

You’ll move from Fascination to Attraction (Chardonnay that is some oak but well balanced) to Flirtation (Merlot Rose) to Romance Of The Heart (Merlot Bordeaux Blend) on through Seduction (Cabernet Bordeaux Blend) and Devotion (Cabernet Franc/Merlot Blend).  There are a total of 8 wines in the “Romantic Portfolio Series” as well as others they produce.  A walk through the barrel room and finally ending back in the tasting room that is really where the production takes place, and you’ll feel right at home with the O’Briens and their tasting room staff.

Tasting fees are $15 per person, and wines range from $40 to $70, with a couple of the estate reserve cabernets at $125 or more.  For those who want to bring home a memory of romance and poetry, this is a great spot to find that perfect bottle that best represents your relationship as it is today.

Barnett Winery: great wine, great views, really nice people.

About 40 minutes from The Inn On First, a luxury bed and breakfast inn in Napa, is Barnett Vineyards Winery.  Snuggled up on the hillside we call Spring Mountain, and at the end of a narrow, winding road lies the beautiful estate of Barnett.   Fiona and Hal Barnett created this vineyard and winery in 1983 with the intent of producing small amounts of hand crafted Cabernet Sauvignon wines from their estate.

The vineyards are located at the top of Spring Mountain, at elevation 2,000ft, planted on steep terraces that follow the contour of the land. The vines struggle to reach nutrients and water in the soil and, as a result, yield only one to two tons per acre (versus four to five tons per acre on the Valley floor). Grapes are harvested by hand; vineyard row by row, as optimum ripeness and maturity is reached. Fermentation is done in small batches.  Producing no more than 6,000 cases per year this is a very small operation.

Don’t be fooled, though, in thinking that small is not great.  Just the opposite is true.  We were pleasantly surprised to taste two different Pinot Noir releases, one with grapes from the Anderson Valley and another with grapes from the Russian River Valley.  Both were big on the nose and I expected them to be big on the palate but I was wrong.  They surprised me by their lightness, good fruit flavor, what I would call a great jazzy wine (playful on the palate).  The Savoy Chardonnay had great butter on the nose, but was evenly balanced with oak on the palate, a nice balance for Jamie (who loves butter) and me (who loves acidity and/or oak).

After tasting these three wines in the barrel room our hostess, Nicole, took us to the caves and the brand new tasting area in the nook of the mountain.  She brought along 2 cabernets for us to try, the Spring Mountain Cab (estate grown) and the Cyrus Ryan Cab (grapes from Valley floor),  Personally I found the Spring Mountain grapes had brighter fruit flavor, while the Cyrus Ryan Vineyard grapes held strong earthy notes, especially cinnamon which I loved.  As Nicole gave us the history of the vineyards, the Barnett family, and an overview of their flagship wine, Rattlesnake Cab, she walked us through the caves to a most stellar view of the Napa Valley floor.  With tables and chairs to sit and enjoy our wine and each other’s company, we stayed awhile soaking up the ambience.

The bulk of their wines range from $30 to $70, with a couple of their single vineyard cabs going for as much as $140.  These are wines you will sit on for 7, 10, or 15 years to allow the aging process to bring out the best of the fruit and to reduce the tannins.  Overall, a lovely experience and well worth the drive.  Although it is not mandatory, Jamie and I place a high expectation upon our guests to purchase when you visit.  This is true of most small, family-owned vineyards, and especially those up in the hillsides.  Tasting fees for Barnett run $40 per person and is worth it considering the great wines you get to try.

Aroma Challenge: want to learn how to identify aromas in wine?

Joseph Phelps Winery is now offering an Aroma Challenge, a 90-minute course on how to identify aromas in wine.  Tasting 6 different wines over the course of 90 minutes, even with the help of a “wine wheel” that lays out a long list of potential aromas in different varietals, was quite a challenge.  The obvious up-front aromas were easy (blackberry, cherry, etc.) but the underlying aromas were much more difficult to identify.  With the help of our wine educator (Luba- you were great!), though, we were taught how to identify those more subtle aromas.

In the middle of this seminar you are also presented with 12 glasses of wine with clear liquid, each filled with the essence of aromas you find in wine (6 red wine aromas, 6 white wine aromas) and are challenged to identify what you smell.  The wine educator even presents you with identifier cards with pictures representing potential aromas (green apple, pear, banana, or cherries, strawberries, licorice), including a few extra misleading ones.  I really thought I had it nailed, scored 100%.  Then came the answers- ugh!  I scored 50% on the white wine aromas and 80% on the red wine aromas.  Boy do I have a lot to learn!

Understand that not only do become more educated, but you also get to drink some really great wine.

Total cost of the seminar: $50 per person.  Well worth the money and the time.  Call Joseph Phelps today and reserve your seminar.