Little Pieces of Paradise
Five under-the-radar winery stops
Back in the 1960s winemaker Tom Eddy’s high school buds in Davis took their girlfriends to dances or drive-ins, but he preferred escorting dates to the Napa Valley’s then dozen-or-so wine-tasting rooms. “Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini, Beringer, Heitz,” Eddy reminisced recently. “With a crowd around the bar you put your head down, held up your glass and they filled it. They didn’t know you weren’t 21.”
In addition to impressing companions with his savoir faire, the teenage Eddy, already planning to enroll in UC Davis’s enology program — where his classmates included Robert’s son Tim and Louis Martini’s grandson Mike — refined his palate. His excursions also reinforced his resolve to establish his own winery.
“It took a long time to have a place in Napa Valley,” concedes Eddy, who made everything from cold duck to collector-quality cabernet before establishing Tom Eddy Winery in 1991. (He still consults for other wineries and is the president of the Calistoga WineGrowers.) It wasn’t until 1999 that he and his wife, Kerry, a sommelier and artist, purchased a 22-acre hillside hideaway in Calistoga. Their winery facility, which Tom designed, didn’t open until 2014.
“I want guests to experience our journey to reach our goal, to taste it in the wines,” Eddy remarks on a hot July afternoon. Sipping one of his typically supple yet complex cabernets, we sit at a careworn, tree-shaded picnic table a stone’s throw from one-acre Kerry’s Vineyard, where Eddy grows the wine’s grapes. “People like to hear stories from the people who lived them,” he continues. “That’s why I do most of the tastings here, to make that connection.”
This month marks the 40th anniversary of my own first Napa Valley foray (I now spend a lot of time there as a writer for Fodor’s Travel and The California Directory of Fine Wineries). Mondavi and Beringer were on the agenda, but the most fulfilling encounters came at humbler outposts akin to Tom and Kerry’s, which is so blissfully detached from the Napa fray that part of it spills into Sonoma County. The couple’s winery today is among several under-the-radar stops I find myself consistently recommending (and revisiting) for their history, their down-home appeal or the owners’ or winemakers’ deep connection to the land.
FEELING THE ENERGY
Seventeen miles south of Eddy’s operation, South Whitehall Lane zigzags southwest from Highway 29 to secluded Tres Sabores Winery. Abutting part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook, owner-winemaker Julie Johnson’s 12-acre “little piece of paradise,” as she describes it, backs into the wooded foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, which separate Napa and Sonoma counties.
Johnson entered the wine world in 1981 when she, thenhusband John Williams and Larry Turley started Frog’s Leap Winery — Johnson was the first paid employee. Organic farming was an early priority at Frog’s Leap; the southern St. Helena land Tres Sabores occupies, purchased in the mid-1980s, has been certified organic for more than a quarter-century.
One pleasure of visiting the dry-farmed property (no irrigation) at Tres Sabores is discovering how fully integrated its ecosystem has become. Sheep mow the hillside, diverse plants attract beneficial insects and bluebirds gobble up predator bugs and ward off grape-loving avian species. Come harvesttime, Johnson’s heaping compost pile oozes with deep-purple pomace.
“I could swear the vines prefer me grabbing the grapes to the birds,” Johnson muses during a midsummer tour that comes to a standstill after she reflexively begins rearranging vine shoots to provide east-facing grapes fuller morning sunlight. “It’s like they’re saying ‘We like this relationship. One, we’re still here — you haven’t pulled us out. Two, people come and admire us.’ You might think it silly, but that’s the energy I’m feeling.”
Most tastings at Tres Sabores (Spanish for “three flavors”) take place outdoors at vineyard’s-edge patio tables with views east across the Napa Valley. The winery lies within the Rutherford appellation, world-famous for cabernet sauvignon. Johnson crafts an earthier, less fruit-forward version than some of her neighbors do, along with zinfandel, a Rutherford rarity. The other red highlight is a dry-farmed Calistoga petite syrah.
Respect for their family’s legacy motivated Lisa Mazzoni and her brother, winemaker Mark Mazzoni, to establish Geyserville’s Zialena. The siblings’ great-grandfather Giuseppe Mazzoni emigrated from Italy to grow grapes and make wine at Italian Swiss Colony, then California’s largest wine producer, before starting his own winery in the early 1900s.
The Mazzoni clan survived Prohibition selling grapes to Italian families in San Francisco and Marin, who used them to make the 200 gallons of wine then permitted yearly for home consumption. Third-generation member Mike Mazzoni, 73, confesses that his late older brother, a lawyer who “could guilt you with a smile,” wheedled him into carrying on the family business, by the late 1970s focused solely on grape-growing. These days most of the cabernet sauvignon from Mike’s 120-acre vineyard goes to Healdsburg’s Jordan winery for its flagship Alexander Valley blend.
“My uncle’s sense of family legacy impacted all of us,” Mark, whose mentors include the internationally renowned winemaker Philippe Melka, tells me this summer inside the gleaming metal-and-glass Zialena tasting room, which opened in February. As we sip 100 percent cabernet from the winery’s debut 2012 vintage, crafted from grapes Mike grew steps away, Lisa joins us bearing a green gallon jug that in the 1960s held a dollar’s worth of Giuseppe Mazzoni burgundy.
“For Lisa and me, Zialena represents both a continuation and updating of family tradition,” Mark says, emphasizing that the inexpensive burgundy made possible the silky-smooth cabernet we’re enjoying. Lisa, who has an MBA and runs the business, says they named the winery after their great-aunt Lena (zia means “aunt” in Italian) to honor the hard work of previous generations and to acknowledge the women, who “perhaps weren’t appreciated as much as they should have been.”
In 2002, when Nancy Lasseter and her husband, John, of Pixar fame, purchased the first of three parcels that evolved into Lasseter Family Winery, they found the Glen Ellen property’s history intriguing yet unsettling. French immigrants made wine on this site a century ago but, says Nancy, “super-bad juju” from a 1989 murder here permeated the place. And the vines suffered from severe neglect.
To reverse the juju Lasseter solicited a spirit cleanser and a medium, but even before their ministrations she began visualizing the property’s transformation into a healthier environment. As with Tres Sabores, 15 years later the ecosystem of vineyard and supporting flora and fauna feels fully integrated, albeit more pristinely manicured than Tres Sabores.
After observing thriving grapevines just after last year’s harvest, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Phil Coturri, Sonoma County’s preeminent organic vineyardist, manages them. (Coincidentally, he’d planted most of them for a previous corporate owner.) One lure for Coturri, a fan of grenache, was the property’s five different clones of that Rhône varietal, which winemaker Julia Iantosca uses to great effect in the Chemin de Fer blend, which also includes estate-grown syrah and mourvèdre.
Iantosca, a 30-year Napa and Sonoma veteran, says the Lasseters are willing to learn but are specific about their preferences. To illustrate the latter point, the winemaker recalls balking a decade ago when John proposed making rosé, at the time out of vogue. “John kiddingly told me, ‘I think I have a good feeling for what the American public likes,’ and sure enough a year and a half later Wine Spectator has rosé on the cover talking about a renaissance.”
TWO PROS ARE BETTER THAN ONE
A wine-biz pal encouraged me last year to check out Westwood Estate. The small winery was just releasing its 2014 reds, the first vintage by Australian-born Ben Cane, formerly of Silver Oak’s Twomey label, in consultation with David Ramey, a titan among California winemakers. My mission at Westwood’s tasting salon off Sonoma Plaza was only to sample pinot noirs, but I was so blown away I arranged to explore the nearly equal number of Rhône-varietal offerings later that day.
What impressed me about all the wines was how thoughtfully conceived they were: “serene but not demure, old-world in style yet Californian in spirit,” read my notes. The wines truly felt of the same place, in this case Westwood’s Annadel Gap Vineyard, sandwiched on 37 acres (23 planted) north of Kenwood between Hood Mountain and hilly Annadel State Park.
As I walked the biodynamically farmed vineyard (which isn’t open to the public) earlier this year with Cane, I noticed that air funnels through the titular gap in a singular way, with foggy Pacific coast morning winds giving way to afternoon San Pablo Bay breezes. The wind makes it possible to grow pinot well despite higher temperatures than, for instance, the Sonoma Coast, but also Rhône grapes and even heat-loving cabernet.
When I ask Cane if he and Ramey ever disagree over final blends, he deflects the question with a laugh but answers two I’ve been puzzling over. One is how Cane and Ramey pulled off such marvelously balanced wines; the other is what’s a consultant’s contribution when the house winemaker has stature as well. “He’s more about texture and mouthfeel, while I’m about aromatics and fruit,” Cane says, naming four key components that in harmony make for a satisfying wine. With such complementary emphases, two pros really would be better than one.
Photos by Robert Holmes (Opener, Zialena); Chuck Harrity (Tom Eddy)
IF YOU GO
Lasseter Family Winery
Tom Eddy Winery