The Dallas Gang in Napa
My birthday trip journey continued with a day in Napa Valley visiting three iconic vineyards that showcased very diverse approaches to winemaking and hospitality – Charles Krug Winery, B Cellars Vineyards and Winery, and Crocker & Starr.
Napa Valley is known as one of the most renowned wine growing regions in the United States, but it only represents 0.4 percent of the world’s wine population with 45,000 acres with half of the world’s recognized soil orders and 33 different series of soils. Its Mediterranean climate and varied elevations of sea level to 2,600 feet yield 34 different wine grape varieties. There are 700 grape growers, 475 wineries making 1,000 brands and 95 percent of those wineries are family owned.
Napa Valley was declared California’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1981 and has 16 recognized sub-AVAs within: Atlas Peak, Calistoga, Chiles Valley District, Coombsville, Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Los Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Spring Mountain District, Stags Leap District, Yountville and Wild Horse Valley. For the purpose of this trip, we stayed in St. Helena.
The Fabulous Jim Morris and me
Our first stop was at Charles Krug Winery where we met with my dear friend and General Manager, Jim Morris. I’ve known Jim for years and he’s one of those people who has an enthusiasm, passion and great knowledge of wine. We could not have had a better ambassador and Jim took us for a tour of the historic estate with a glass of wine in hand. He told us fun family stories about the Mondavi family growing up on the property. Who knew today’s CIA was once a great place to sneak in and roller blade?
CIA and former roller blading site of the Mondavi girls
Charles Krug remains one of the three wineries left in the Napa Valley that have been owned by the same family since World War II. The Mondavi family bought the Charles Krug Winery in 1943, which was founded by Prussian-born Charles Krug. Charles was a journalist of a German language newspaper before he was a winemaker and also worked at the U.S. Mint. His passion for wine was ignited by friends and he married a woman who brought a dowry of what is now the land of Charles Krug winery. He established the winery in 1860.
Cesare Mondavi first came to Minnesota from Italy in 1906 and became a miner. In 1908, he returned to Italy to marry Rosa Grassi and started a boarding house and saloon. In 1922, as Prohibition hit, the Mondavi’s and their four children moved to California and started C. Mondavi and Sons, which was a grape shipping business. We also saw the home on the property where Peter Mondavi lived.
Cesare didn’t set out to be a winemaker – just an accidental entrepreneur who wanted to take care of his family. After success in the grape shipping business, he decided to purchase the Charles Krug winery. Cesare Mondavi was an innovator and introduced the cider press for winemaking and many other advanced winemaking techniques that were unheard of during that time. Back in the day, Charles Krug was making more than 27 different wines including ports and sherries until over time, the family decided to focus on key varietals.
Today, Charles Krug Winery is run by third-generation brothers Peter Mondavi Jr. and Marc Mondavi, as well as fourth-generation members of the Mondavi family. It is surprising to me how involved the family continues to follow the DNA of winemaking. Angelina, Alycia, Riana and Giovanna, who are Marc’s children and Lucio and Lia, Peter Jr’s children, are all actively involved in in the operations of the winery.
I’ve had a chance to try many of the Charles Krug wines, including the special 75th anniversary restrospective, but I’ve always found them to showcase the power of the Mondavi legacy. Having Jim Morris as your tour guide makes a wonderful experience even more special.
Owner Duffy Keys and Me
Our next stop was to experience the hospitality of B Cellars Vineyard and Winery firsthand. I had the chance to meet Owner Duffy Keys at a dinner back in January and I was very intrigued to see what happens when two luxury executives open a winery in Napa.
Duffy Keys and Jim Borsack met in Southern California in 2002, while working as executives in the luxury business. Duffy was an executive at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and Jim was with El-Portal, a global chain of designer leather goods. It was time for the next chapter of their lives and they decided to take that love of hospitality and bring it to the wine industry. B Cellars was then concepted after Duffy was able to talk Jim out of his original plan of a winery in Temecula.
They found the perfect site in Oakville. Clark and Lisa Miller owned an 11.35-acre property that was used to breed and raise cutting horses. Clark played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams and had a successful Coors distribution business. The family happened to apply for a winery permit in 1970’s, but never planted grapes.
Right around the time that Duffy and Jim began looking for properties, Lisa was considering selling. Sometimes the stars align. In 2012, Duffy was in process of negotiating his exit from the Four Seasons and was living in Singapore, but had decided with his wife, Judy, that they were going to move to Sonoma and apply the same luxury lessons to the wine business.
The open-air kitchen at the B Cellars tasting room
With the property purchased and with the same shared vision, Keys and Borsack needed a winemaker and they needed to secure great grapes. Remember these were two men that weren’t going to settle for anything but the best as they took enology and viticulture classes at UC Davis.
With perseverance and with lots of good connections, they found Winemaker Kirk Venge, who opened the doors to vineyards like Beckstoffer and To Kalon. Venge instituted a multi-vineyard winemaking strategy where the wines are blended, crafted and procured from Napa and Sonoma’s top growers. B Cellars has a long-term partnership with Pioneering Grower Andy Beckstoffer, who works in partnership six single-vineyard heritage wines from Bourn, Dr. Crane, Georges III, Las Piedras, Beckstoffer Heritage Vineyards, Missouri Hopper and To Kalon. They also work with Dutton Ranch Manzana Vineyard in the Russian River Valley; Dutton Ranch Mill Station Vineyard in the Russian River Valley; Ehrlich Vineyard in Napa Valley; Kenefick Ranch Vineyard in Napa Valley; Kick Ranch Vineyard in Sonoma and Star Vineyard in Napa Valley to make the 15 wines produced.
Walking into the wine tasting room you see a demonstration kitchen that prepares food from the seasonal gardens found on the estate. The vineyards, production facility and caves showcase the experience of hospitality that is the cornerstone of the B Cellars philosophy. The tasting experience is not usual. Kristina Fischer was our wine guide who led us through a tour of B Cellars vineyards, gardens, winery and caves. We were brought back to our own room where we had a special birthday menu with wine pairings and had the chance to talk to Duffy about experiencing B Cellars. It was a pure Unami experience.
Our pairing was as follows:
2018 B Cellars Jewell Vineyard Sauvignon Black paired with Yellowtail with sushi rice, lemon and pickled ginger
2017 B Cellars Dutton Ranch Chardonnay with Salmon lox with rye bagel chips, lemon-dill cream cheese and fried capers
2017 B Cellars Manzana Vineyard Pinot Noir with Strawberry Bruschetta with smoked bacon, goat cheese and grilled sourdough
2017 B Cellars Dry Creek Zinfandel with baby back rib with Kansas City Barbecue sauce
2016 B Cellars Blend 27 with potato gratin with Portobello mushroom and coquille olive relish with gruyere cheese
We also had the treat of sampling the 2016 B Cellars To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet. It’s a swoon worthy wine.
Duffy talked about how wine and food should go together and how much fun it is to bring this entire concept to life — from the vineyard to the wine to the garden to the kitchen to the pairing. It was powerful to show how perfect the symphony of food and wine can be.
Our final stop was to visit Crocker & Starr, one of my favorite female-owned wineries. I’ve had the chance to hang out with Pam Starr several times and my word to describe her and her team is amazing.
Crocker & Starr is a boutique winery founded in 1997 with vineyards located on a historic 122-acre property with about 115 acres planted. This winery is a partnership between Charlie Crocker, a successful California businessman, and Starr. Crocker owns the vineyard Pam is responsible for vineyard management and winemaking. Pam once told me the story about how she originally thought her first meeting with Charlie was about purchasing fruit. After a three-hour discussion, they shook hands and a partnership was born. Pam is an icon who has worked for many notable wineries including Adastra and Spottswoode Estate.
The property was originally established in 1870 as Dowdell & Sons Winery and has been a working farm since. In 1971, Charlie and his wife Lucinda purchased the estate property on Dowdell Lane. The production at the vineyard is small – only 3,500 to 3,800 cases that are all under allocation – and the winery sells fruit to other Napa wineries and it is farmed sustainably and organically.
Crocker & Starr focuses only on three wines — Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. And they do them well.
Me and Lauren McClure
Running into Assistant Winemaker Evyn Cameron
We were hosted by Lauren McClure, who runs PR and sales at the winery, who took us on a tour of the property and then we had a lovely outdoor tasting. It was also fun to run into Assistant Winemaker Evyn Cameron, who I had the pleasure to meet during the Wine Writer’s Conference in 2018.
Lauren echoed many of the things that I heard Pam say before about how the wines are driven by the terroir and the vineyard to glass philosophy.
We tried estate several wines during our tasting:
2018 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc
2016 Crocker & Starr ‘Casali 9’ Malbec Blend
2013 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon ‘1 Post’
We also got to try one of my favorite Cabernet Francs. The 2015 Crocker & Starr Bridesmaid Cabernet Franc is a gorgeous wine and we heard the story of the new label. It focuses on the role of the bridesmaid – one who used to hand gather a boutique of herbs and flowers for the bride. The wine is meant to gather the best from the vineyard and neighboring estates to create wines of complexity and balance. And I walked out as a wine club member.
It was a lovely day in Napa Valley that showcased an original wine family who helped establish Napa to the folks who brought consumer best practices from another industry to one pioneering woman winemaker dedicated to combining the best of Old and New World techniques while doing things on her own terms.