Top Ten Wineries of Calistoga 8 min read
Wine is sunlight, held together by water. - Galileo Galilei
In 2009, Calistoga was granted a status of American Viticultural Area, or AVA. Its unique geology and wild diversity of topography, geography and climate makes it a premier growing region within Napa Valley. First vines were planted in 1862, since then dozens of new vineyards took hold. The AVA now represents some of the forefront of California winemaking.
Calistoga AVA is located in the northern end of Napa Valley. It is famous for its geothermal springs that bubble up calcium and magnesium laced waters, topographical diversity, extraordinary volcanic soils, and dramatic diurnal temperature swings of up to 50°F. The latter makes for ideal grape growing conditions, with hot days contributing to vivid color and vibrant flavor in the wines, and cool nights ensuring bright acidity and solid structure.
Bart and Daphne Araujo’s prized Eisele vineyard was planted 125 years ago. Recently acquired by the Pinault family, the legacy of world-class wines continues. Araujo Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon was an instant cult, admired by critics since its inception. It redefined what Calistoga’s volcanic bedrock, aided by the Napa’s alluvial fan, is capable of achieving. There are three estate wines to enjoy: Cabernet, Syrah and my guilty pleasure – sublime Sauvignon Blanc. They also make a red blend called Altagracia with fruit from other stellar sources. No expense or effort is spared in the production of these wines, and it shows.
Mark Aubert is a St Helena native whose career included making wines for Colgin, Peter Michael, Sloan, Futo and Bryant Family. His mentor was the legendary Helen Turley, whose standards of excellence had a clear influence on the aspiring winemaker. His own brand launched to high critical scores and an instantly filled mailing list. Aubert makes seven Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs, a few bottles of which make it to some of the country’s top restaurants.
When one thinks of Napa Valley wine, few brands leap to mind as easily as the historic Chateau Montelena, best known for the event that redefined modern wine history.
In 1976, Chateau Montelena turned the world’s perception of California wine on its head. At the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris, four top flight white Burgundies were tasted blind against six California Chardonnays. When the scores were tabulated, French judges discovered that the white wine winner was Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay. This astounding upset validated California’s role as the top-notch producing region and catapulted Chateau Montelena to world-wide fame.
Alfred L. Tubbs put the first vines in the ground in the late 1800s and subsequently built a Chateau (which he named Montelena after nearby Mt. St. Helena). When Jim Barrett replanted the vineyard, he had the highest quality harvests in mind. The first wines were released in 1972. 32 years later, Jim’s son, Bo, is in charge and the wines are as qualitatively sound and age-worthy as ever. In fact, the appellation itself was proposed in 2003 by Bo Barrett.
Jack and Jamie Davies purchased a picturesque hillside property in 1965 and embarked on an ambitious and arduous journey of producing sparkling wine. They are credited with the first commercial use of Chardonnay in sparkling wine in the US. In 2005 Davis’ youngest son, Hugh, was named the winery’s president, some 40 years since the beginning of the brand, a date which coincided with his own birth year.
Schramsberg sources fruit from more than 90 vineyards across Anderson Valley, Carneros, Marin and Sonoma Coasts, which contribute to over 200 unique lots. Hugh has extensive and diverse wine making experience, having spent time at Moet et Chandon in France, Mumm Napa, and having worked harvests in both Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand tradition, Hugh has a still and is a sparkling winemaker. Keith Hock is responsible for the bubbly creations. Keith’s background includes working at Rudd Estate (mentored by David Ramey) and Saintsbury. Still wines are made by Sean Thompson, who worked at Rutherford Hill and Staglin (mentored by Luc Morlet).
The J Davies brand produces outstanding Diamond Mountain District and Estate Cabernet Sauvignons as well as Pinot Noir from cool climate North Coast vineyard sites.
Schramsberg boasts 34,000 sq. feet of caves, where 2.7 million bottles age from two to ten years prior to release. My perennial favorite is J. Schram, one of the finest domestic sparkling wines made.
Marla and Dale Bleecher fell in love with a ranch just outside of Calistoga and planted a vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Initially, the fruit was sold to a bevy of premium producers such as Chateau Montelena, Pride Mountain Vineyards, and Rudd Estate. Now the estate fruit is used to produce their own Bordeaux-style blend. Winemaker Aaron Pott, whose background includes a stint at Newton under the tutelage of John Kongsgaard, blends fruit from 24 individually harvested blocks. Michael Rolland, who consults for over 100 properties in 13 countries, assists in the final blending decisions. Their crisp, minerally, Sauvignon Blanc is my summer cellar staple.
Amy Aiken cut her winemaking teeth at Joseph Phelps Vineyards where she helped craft the famed Insignia. Her other career choices included Oakville, Viader and Anomaly vineyards, until she decided to be the master of her own wine domain. Meander is named after Amy’s two sons, Mitchell and Andrew. She sources her Cabernet fruit from two renowned vineyards, in order to create a perfectly balanced blend. Her stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc, which is then aged sur lie, features gorgeous acidity, bright citrus, and brilliant minerality. I have a sneaking suspicion it will age very well, but who has a patience to wait?
Kelly Peterson is a very special person. She encouraged me to write many moons ago and I am forever grateful for her gentle nudging to do what I love. In the farming business since 1914, the Peterson dynasty has a long agricultural and ranching history. Kelly’s great aunts’ love for the single block of old Petite Sirah planted on the property, inspired hiring a family friend, Bob Foley (of Pride Mountain Vineyards) in 1999. The rest is winemaking history. Today Switchback Ridge produces estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Sirah.
Kelly’s multigenerational legacy is hallmarked by her unparalleled dedication to every aspect of production, as well as marketing. The wines sourced from low yielding, meticulously managed vines, are immense, ultra-concentrated, fruit-forward, beautiful beasts. I believe Switchback Petite Sirah to be the best made in California.
Attorneys Dirk Fulton and Betty Kukkola purchased a historic 80 acre hillside property in 2000. They hired Jim Barbour to plant the vineyard and Mark Herold (Merus) to make the wine. Five acres of vineyard is divided into four blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon. Rocky soil causes the vines to struggle, resulting in exceptionally concentrated fruit. The wines are superb, showcasing tension, tons of ripe black fruit, expansive mid-palate, and thunderous, phenomenal finish. Think muscular mountain fruit, cellar worthiness, power and grace. The property itself is pure magic and is well worth a visit.
Nils Venge, California’s first 100 point winemaker, started making wine a half-century ago. The son of a European wine importer, Nils left the family business to pursue enology studies at UC Davis. He achieved worldwide fame by crafting the 1985 Groth Reserve, which earned a perfect 100 points. The family purchased their 17 acre Oakville property in 1976 and planted it to Cabernet and Merlot. In 2008, Nil’s son Kirk took over as proud proprietor of the family brand. Kirk’s past and present clients include such stellar brands as B Cellars, Bacio DiVino, Honeycutt, Igneous, Jax, JR, Macauley, Renteria, Trespass and more.
I’m convinced that Venge Family Reserve Cabernet will outlast me. It is a huge bargain, given the modest price point. I opened a bottle of 1996 a few weeks ago and it was still youthful.
Once in a while there is brand that comes, seemingly, out of nowhere. A wine that is so impressive, one has to stand up and take notice. My first sip of Bill and Joan Smith’s 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir caused just that. You may know the Smiths from their ownership of La Jota Vineyards on Howell Mountain, which they sold in 2000. It was a family friend, Helen Turley that persuaded Bill Smith to make Pinot Noir. In 1994, the couple purchased 360 acres along the stunning Sonoma Coast. The first vintage of Maritime Ridge was released a decade later. The brand produces four single vineyard Pinot designates: Hellenthal, Maritime, Marimar, Umino, a Sonoma Coast blend and a Cabernet from Smith’s Howell Mountain estate. 80 years young, Bill still makes his wine with the assistance of Carlos Montero. W.H. Smith has a great tasting room right in the town of Calistoga, a must stop.
Located at the tail end of Napa Valley, Calistoga it is well worth a stop. It is home to a quaint downtown, with lots of lovely restaurants and hotels featuring spa treatments.
- My favorite indulgence is the cozy Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. It offers unique mud bath treatments and employs some of the most skilled, customer service-friendly staff in town.
- One of the newest accommodation additions is the modestly priced Sunburst Calistoga Hotel, which is furnished in Eames-era style, and is quiet and comfortable.
- Solage Calistoga is a must stop if you are in the area. Their Solbar serves up some of the best cocktails and bites in the valley.
- If you are in the mood for luxury lap, Calistoga Ranch is a place to unwind in style. Take in a mineral bath or a massage after a long day of wine tasting, relax by the pool or raise a glass to a great trip.
A visit to the City of Calistoga is a fitting conclusion to a thirty mile strip of hedonism known as Napa Valley.