Laird Family Vineyards: finding your place in the sun with so many varietals to try

A five minute drive from Napa’s luxury Bed and Breakfast Inn, The Inn On First, is Laird Family Estate.  With its oxidized copper roof that you can see from Highway 29, it sits on a small hillock with both indoor and outdoor seating.  Outdoors is where you want to be as you overlook the hills of Napa Valley as well as Laird’s vineyards.

Laird Family Winery Laird Entrance Laird Outdoor Patio Laird Indoor Seating Laird Tasting Menu

We started with the Big Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, with a nose of green apples and pear blossoms, with crisp, floral tones and light acidity with a hint of grapefruit.  Next was the Cold Creek Pinot Grigio with a hint of peach and honeydew melon, and very lemony on the  tongue with a slight mineral flavor.  The Cold Creek Chardonnay was next with light buttery notes, a little oak- it tasted like buttered toast when I swallowed.  The second Chardonnay was the Red Hen Chardonnay, heavy on the oak and with a light minerality with citrusy tones.   Interestingly, it also was more full bodied over the first one.

We moved onto the reds next, beginning with the Suscol Ranch Merlot.  Big black cherry aromas, with blackberies and cinnamon, and yet a light and soft wine on the tongue, with hints of blueberries.  The Suscol Ranch Syrah followed with aromas of dark fruits (plums, black cherries), light tannin on the palate with a clove-spice finish.  Jillian’s Blend, a Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot blend, was filled with herbaciousness (think bell pepper) and had a soft finish.  The Diamond Mountain Cabernet, 8 years old, was as soft as  Cabernet could be, with great fruit flavor.  It is drinkable right now, and carries flavors of raspberries and light cherries.  A lovely wine.  We finished with the Mast Ranch Cabernet, with dark cocoa and dark fruit on the nose, with leather undertones and some tannins on the palate.  I could have used a NY steak at that moment.

Wines list from $20 to $90, with club member discounts available.  If you see Ben while you’re there, or Val, tell them Jim and Jamie say hello!


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.



Lunch in the mountain vineyards: a most spectacular event and only $80/pp

As we left for the day from The Inn On First, a luxury Napa Bed and Breakfast, we knew we were in for a real treat with our upcoming vineyard lunch.   You enjoy as much wine as you want from each bottle they open for you to try.  You eat to your heart’s content with incredible food from Ken Frank of La Toque.  You look down upon the beauty of Napa Valley and think: “Oh my!  I’m so lucky to be in Napa!”  You are one of the few who have discovered and enjoyed the uniqueness of Napa Valley at its best.

Chateau Patel-VGS.  Vineyard Lunch. It began with a drive up Mt. Veeder and down a long, dusty road to a gated vineyard.  We met Tony, an affable man with a great smile, and he opened the gates and invited us to follow him.  We traversed the rows of cabernet grapes, and when we spotted the pink flag on one of the stakes he proudly proclaimed: “Pick a row!  Climb the mountain.”  We did.  It wasn’t a long climb, about 50 yards, through the vines ripe with fruit, purple and luscious, hanging, waiting for you to enjoy their bounty.  I can see why tennis shoes or good hiking shoes are a must.

We found a dirt road on top and followed that up another 50 yards until we found the arbor, built specifically for this purpose.  A table, white linen table cloth and napkins, with wine glasses, silverware, and plates awaiting the diner.  As well as a gorgeous view of Napa Valley and the surrounding vineyards.

We started with a salmon spread and toast points served with their VGS Explorer Sauvignon Blanc ($25).  A crisp wine with smells of lightly buttered toast and hints of lemon went well with the salmon.  We followed this with a lovely green salad, blue cheese, candied pecans and a balsamic vinaigrette served with the VGS Chardonnay ($45), with notes of pear, green apple, and honeydew.  A beautiful combination of food and wine.  We also paired this and the next course with their cabernet-zinfandel blend called “Illegitimate” (2009) ($37).  Fruity, with flavors of tart cherries and spice, very fruit forward and big fruit flavors.

Our main course was beef carpaccio, potato salad, and marinated vegetables served with the Illegitimate and their VGS Syrah (2009) ($75) with big fruit flavors, lightly spiced, and extremely delicious.  Of course there was still the cheese course with cranberry nut bread, nuts, and three beautiful cheeses.  All that could be paired with what we already had open.  But then Tony opened a bottle of their late harvest zinfandel, called “Zinie” (2010) ($28).  Low in residual sugar and not at all like many of the dessert wines we’ve had elsewhere, it was an incredible pairing with the cheese and bread.

I have to admit that it wasn’t just the food and the wine and the view that made our day special.  Tony is an incredible host, funny, and willing to engage you in conversation about many things.  He makes you feel comfortable, even about the fact that there are no restrooms: “Just find a nice spot around the bend in the road,” he encouraged as we each took turns finding our private hideaway.  Rustic, yes, but with the views of vineyards and mountains, it didn’t matter.  For $80/pp you would be hard pressed to enjoy such a wonderful experience at any restaurant in the valley with this caliber pairing of wines for anything less.  And remember, you also get all those views on your way down the mountain!  Oh, and don’t forget to ask him: “What does VGS stand for anyway?”

Saddleback: what a surprise- I liked everything I tried.

I don’t often say that I like everything I tried, but this was an unusual place.  A world-class winemaker producing wines that are reasonably priced.  Now, that is the real surprise of this place.  I won’t drop his name- you’ll have to discover it for yourself; but he is consultant to many wineries here in the Napa Valley because he is one of the few who has produced a 100-point wine out of Napa.  We were encouraged to visit by a friend of ours and finally made our way to this small, unassuming winery with a very small and intimate tasting room.  The pourer, Jim, was just delightful and very informative, and let us also taste the winemaker’s son’s wine.  To be honest, the son has a ways to go, but is making some nice wine; just not as lovely as his father.  Anyway, if you are looking for an unassuming place to drink some really nice wine that is affordable and unpretentious, then this is the place for you.  If you are looking for splash, and pizzazz, and a major tour, please go elsewhere.  The winemaker’s son also produces wine out of Saddleback under a different label.  His wine was good but, in our opinion, not as good as his father’s wine- and, it was more expensive!  And in today’s times, less expensive is good especially when the flavor in your mouth is popping.  By the way, they have some tables and umbrellas outdoors for picnics, and I would highly recommend this as a place to enjoy your lunch.  As with any winery it is common courtesy to buy a bottle of wine when using the picnic grounds.

Peju: wine, cheese, food, and more.

Last week we were asked to participate in a hospitality presentation at Peju Winery.  With a new chef, Marianne, at the helm of the food, and the winemaker, Sarah Fowler, still producing great wine, Peju is investing in a new series of food and wine pairing sessions.  The first was the wine and cheese: four distinct California cheeses paired with four of Peju’s wines.  The goat cheese stood out beautifully with the Sauvignon Blanc, the Humboldt Fog went well with the Provence, lamb prosciutto was paired with the 05 Merlot, and a sheep’s milk cheese with the 05 Cabernet Sauvignon.  The chef was informative, entertaining, and very engaging with the group (no more than fifteen in each session).  We followed this up with a tour of the grounds and discovered (finally!) that those funky trees they are growing are stripped down sycamores.  If you haven’t seen them, you should.  They are leafing all the way up each long trunk and the effect is hypnotic.  We toured the estate vineyard where their award-winning Cab comes from, as well as the chef’s herb and vegetable garden where everything was popping up in abundance.  Our hosts, Katie and Connor, talked to us about the energy-efficiency of the winery as it utilizes solar panels to produce close to 40% of the energy the winery uses to produce the wines.  We were taken through the barrel room and then fortunate enough to see the new bottling machine where they were just putting together a new bottle and label of a Syrah Rose. Returning to the main tasting room, we were escorted through the new tasting room addition that is very bright, beautiful, and contemporary.  We finished our day back upstairs for a second session, this time for tapas and wine pairing.  We started with a goat’s milk yogurt cheese with a pate paired with the 05 Merlot, moved to the lamb meatball with pomegranate reduction paired with the 05 Cabernet Franc, proceeded to the crostini with boar prosciutto and caramelized onions/macerated cherries which perfectly fit the 05 Fifty/Fifty blend, and finished with the Yellow Bell Pepper in tempura that was paired with the 04 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.  Once the hour session was completed we made a beeline to the kitchen for a quick tour and then to the tasting room to purchase some of these wines.  We both highly recommend the experience (cheese tasting @$40; tapas tasting @ $60) and would encourage a guest to do BOTH (there may be a discount for both experiences in a single day)!  What a great way to spend a few hours drinking wine, enjoying the vineyards, and eating really great, creative food.  Currently these are being offered on Thursdays and Fridays.  Cheese tastings are at 11:00 a.m. and Tapas tastings are at 1:00 p.m.

Pride Vineyards: they have something to be proud about.

It is pre-season for us and we still have a few weeks left where we can sneak out for the afternoon and go wine tasting.  Many of our guests last summer raved about Pride Vineyards and we decided to take the trek up Spring Mountain for the afternoon to visit them.  The entrance to the mountain top is out of St. Helena, and then it is a 15 minute windy trek up the hillside road.  I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who has already been tasting and is driving.  You will want all of your faculties firmly in place as you meander up that mountain.

Coming into the vineyards we could see some picnic tables on the hillside overlooking the gorgeous vista of the surrounding mountain ranges.  We knew right away that the view alone was worth the drive.  As the winery is “by appointment only” (a requirement of federal law for many wineries) there were few people in the tasting room.  Their focus, we found out, is on personalized service to for each appointment.  The bad news was that the Chardonnay had sold out and they had nothing left to taste; the good news was that they were breaking open the Reserve Chardonnay in its place until the next release.  Boo-hoo!  That Reserve was crisp, clean, with lots of fruit and floral aromas.  We enjoyed it.  I think of it less as a food pairing wine, but rather as a cocktail wine, or sitting around the pool wine.

We moved onto the Cabernet Franc, discovering that this grape is usually used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, but that they were so pleased with the Cab Franc’s appeal, they bottled it as is.  We were happy they did.  We loved the full bodied smell that came off the glass and were instructed that Cab Franc is known for its aromatic nature, and that is why they blend it with Cab Sauvignon.  They next poured the Merlot and my mouth did a little dance of joy as the cherries and berries, tart and full, hit my palate.  We both fell in love with that wine.  Tim, our host, then offered to show us the caves and the new storage facility they are building.  We jumped at the chance and as we entered the cave he gave us an opportunity to try the Syrah from the barrel and also the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.  Oh boy, did that Reserve Cab do me in.  I could have rolled the barrel home and put in a hose on top and been satisfied with that wine for a very long time.  It is not overly complex, but it is supple and soft in the mouth with a very, very slight tannic finish, leaving you with essence of chocolate and berries.  Don’t berate me for the descriptors!  These winemakers really do strive to put flavors into their wines, using the skins, the stems, the type of wood for the barrel, the length of time in the barrel, the blending, etc.  Some flavors I love (chocolate, dark cherry), others won’t turn me away (tobacco, leather), and then some just send me screaming from the winery (green bell pepper- herbaceousness, they call it!).  Some people love what I hate, and others hate what I love.  That is why there is so much wine produced, because we all have different palates and need to find what we like to drink.   Honestly, I enjoyed everything I drank at Pride and my wallet is the poorer because of it.

As for visiting, because it is by appointment they book early (2 to 4 weeks prior in normal season; 6 to 8 weeks prior in high season) as they only take 10 people in the tasting room every 30 minutes.  They produce about 22,000 cases of wine total, and most of it never hits the market.  Some of their smaller lots are only 200 cases which means it goes quickly, especially when it is tasty.  They also have great picnic grounds, either on the hilltop overlooking all the vineyards (no shade), or down by the guest house and the old winery ruins (shaded and grassy).  They even provide you with a chilled bucket if you purchase and want to drink a bottle of chilled Chardonnay with your picnic.  They will even do private group tastings in a separate room with enough advance reservation notice.  They do one tour in the morning for 60 to 90 minutes, and it includes a visit to the vineyards, a walk through the caves, and if there is time and availability, some barrel tasting.  Tasting fees run about $15 per person, and most of the time those are waived when you purchase wine from them.


I highly recommend this winery, but not for those trying to taste a lot of different wines in a short period of time.  This is a half-day event and meant for those who want a more relaxing tasting day experience: an hour’s drive, an hour or more of tasting and touring, and a recommendation of a picnic (buy your food in St. Helena before you trek up the mountain) before returning to the valley floor.  Their wines average $60 bottle and you will definitely want to take the experience home with you.