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Do Wine Aerators Work & Are They Worth the Money?

People like gadgets. I know I do. There’s always the hope for a better mousetrap; some way to make our lives easier, teeth whiter, recorded music sound like a live performance. There are plenty of wine gadgets on the market, many of which sell amazingly well. But do they work?

John Alban Traps Philippe Guigal in an Elevator and other Tales of HdR

This is the third installment of my conversation with John Alban regarding Hospice du Rhone and the advancement of Rhone variety wines globally over the past 20 years. Don’t miss part one and part two.

Highlights among Past Tasting Seminars at Hospice du Rhone

The first two articles in this series touched on the passion of both Hospice du Rhone organizers and its attendees. Hospice du Rhoners, and I include myself among them, really love Rhone variety wines. We like to learn about new ones, meet people who share our enthusiasm and discuss the wines we taste. But passion alone cannot sustain an event such as Hospice du Rhone.

“The success and the excitement and the sustainability of Hospice du Rhone ultimately comes down to one simple fact," says John Alban. 'And that is the quality of the wines poured. You could do all the things we do. You could try to introduce all the passion, enthusiasm, the celebration. But if the wines didn’t live up to all that hullabaloo, people wouldn’t come back.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the quality that keeps Hospice du Rhoners coming back, and attracts new ones, is the E. Guigal Tasting Seminar led by Philippe Guigal in 2008. It was a remarkable tasting of nine wines, including the famous "La La's."

  • 2006 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2006 E. Guigal “La Doriane”
  • 2006 E. Guigal St. Joseph Blanc
  • 2005 E. Guigal Hermitage Blanc “Ex Voto”
  • 2003 E. Guigal “Brune et Blonde”
  • 2005 E. Guigal “Vignes de l”Hospice”
  • 1998 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis
  • 2004 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie “La Mouline”
  • 2006 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie “La Landonne”

Making this seminar happen was no small feat. John told me it took the most years and the most trips to France of any he's produced. In his opening comments at the seminar, Philippe Guigal spoke with amusement about how he reached his decision to put on a tasting at Hospice du Rhone.

He and John Alban were in an elevator in France, leaving a venue after yet more discussions. Alban reached over and pushed the emergency stop button. “We’re not leaving the elevator,” Alban told him, “until we come to an agreement on when you’re coming to Hospice du Rhone.” Smiling, Philippe said, “I think he may have been serious.”

Doing a tasting seminar at Hospice du Rhone is no small decision for a winery. Even the quantity of wine needed is daunting — these seminars seat 400 people. Alban both appreciates those who do it and marvels at what Hospice du Rhone has become.

“It’s almost unbelievable. How does Philippe Guigal wind up in Paso Robles pouring hundreds of bottles of wine that people are on a waiting list to purchase for huge amounts of money? And he’s there giving them away and talking about them at Hospice du Rhone. Just that phenomenon right there show’s there’s a certain lunacy to all this.”

Some Hospice du Rhone tasting seminars, such as that of E. Guigal, provide attendees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try highly exclusive wines. Others, like “Blinded by the Whites,” introduce people to new categories of wine. And some, including those scheduled for this year’s event, expose unique geographies or introduce individual winemakers and their passions.

The 2012 Hospice du Rhone Seminars

Each of this year’s seminars are connected somehow with the history of Hospice du Rhone. The first, 'Why Spain (Continues to) Rock,' focuses on Priorat with an ensemble of the region’s best Rhone variety specialists. It reprises a 2006 tasting that was among the most surprising ever for attendees. Once again, it will be led by Eric Solomon, proprietor of European Cellars, a prominent importer and specialist in Priorat wines.

John Alban explained the impact the first Priorat seminar had on Hospice du Rhoners and, ultimately, himself. “People went into this seminar with unpronounceable names, unpronounceable regions, unpronounceable soil types, everything was a just a garble of syllables that nobody had any experience with. In the end, people got fired up. You know, I was getting cards and emails from people a year later saying, “I’m in Priorat!” People who had never heard of Priorat before, now they were sending me cards and letters from there.” With emotion in his voice, Alban said, “It’s hard not to feel pretty pumped up about something like that.”

Christopher Baron of Cayuse Cellars in Walla Walla appeared at Hospice du Rhone in a 2004 seminar on Washington Rhones with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars. At the time, Walla Walla wasn’t on anyone’s radar. “It was so far ahead of the curve,” says Alban. “Many years later after he really came into prominence and notoriety, people would come to us all the time and ask, 'Have you ever thought about doing a seminar about Christophe.' I’d say, "Yeah, we did one.'” Fortunately for those people, he's back this year in 'The Return of the Bionic Frog.'

I am intrigued by his use of biodynamic farming and reputation for  minimal intervention winemaking. So, I’m looking forward to the tasting with Christophe Baron who John Alban described for me. “He’s hysterical. He’s engaging. He’s brilliant. He’s talented. He is this rare combination of a winemaking phenom and a showman — in all the best ways, not a contrived way, not a superficial way — and what greater treat than to be able to put someone in front of people who wows you with the wines and dazzles you with their personality and their perspective.”

Alban says that d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborne, who will lead “Research, Revelations and the Art of Being Different,” is very similar. “I would almost say that Chester and Christophe could be twin brothers from two different continents. Except they don’t look anything alike. They have wonderful senses of humor. They are great philosophers and winemakers, etc. etc. There some obvious differences. One makes a huge amount of wine, one makes a small amount of wine. But I think that’s part of that Australian-Walla Walla dichotomy. Australia really does things big. Walla Walla is small.”

Osborne’s seminar will detail studies he’s done on geology and sub-regionality in McClaren Vale. He’ll explain the corresponding changes he’s made in viticulture and winemaking. And, of course, it will feature some of the best wines of South Australia.

Several times during our conversation, John Alban referred to this 20th anniversary Hospice du Rhone as a family reunion. He did so particularly with respect to the seminars. And the hosts of “A Collective Quest” are almost as inseparable from HdR as they are from each other. Yves Cuillion, Francois Gaillard and Pierre Gaillard are the founders of Les Vins de Vienne. [For more about Les Vins de Vienne, I recommend this article by Blake W. Gray at Palate Press.] With Yves Gangloff who is not involved with that particular project, they have become known to Hospice du Rhoners as “The Four Amigos.”

The involvement of these winemakers with Hospice du Rhone goes back to the early days when John Alban and Mat Garretson were making regular trips to the Northern Rhone trying to get participation. Yves Cuilleron was so receptive to us,” Alban explained. “He wanted to know more and more about it and started laughing and giggling. We’d say, ‘Who wouldn’t want to go to Paso Robles?’ We played off of that and off of what we were, which was goofy and passionate. He got it and wanted us to meet some of his friends. They told anyone and everyone in the Northern Rhone and helped open a lot of doors for us. They’re like four angels that picked us up and continue to flap their wings and elevate us.”

Acceptance of Hospice du Rhone in the Rhone Valley

The participation of Cuilleron, Villard, Gaillard and Gangloff helped legitimize and expand HdR’s status as a truly international celebration of Rhone wines. Their enthusiasm and the dedication of Hospice du Rhone staff ultimately led to complete acceptance of the event by producers of the Northern Rhone.

One symbol of this acceptance was emulation. According to Alban, “France took on putting together an event which they now have up and down the Rhone Valley. They have it every other year and it was inspired by Hospice du Rhone. They’re very candid about that. It’s a much bigger thing and government funded. It involves all the producers of the Rhone Valley. We’d like to see Hospice du Rhone’s of sorts pop up all over the world because that’s our mission.”

Another symbol of appreciation for Hospice du Rhone among producers of the Northern Rhone came as a complete surprise to the HdR staff. “There was a very persistent request that the Hospice du Rhone gang be in Cote-Rotie for a big tasting,” John told me. There were a number of dear friends who did a great job of putting a lot of positive pressure on us to be at this thing. They wanted us to know how important it was. So we were completely unsuspecting. We just knew they were organizing a tasting and were trying to build more interest in the Northern Rhone for Hospice du Rhone.”

”What we didn’t know was that they have this society — and you know the French are big on their ancient and long-lived fraternities — The Decurion of Cote-Rotie, the organization of Cote Rotie producers. And they made me a member of this group. I didn’t see it coming. I guess they admit like four people each two years. They called me up and put the medal around me and kissed me on both cheeks and did all these things the French people do. It really was pretty overwhelming.”

"Up on the mezzanine above me were all these families, fathers and sons. The fathers had all rejected the idea of a Hospice du Rhone. Well... many had, it’s not so black and white. But I could look at so many of the fathers who had rejected this idea thinking, ‘We’re French, you’re American. How can we work together? This makes no sense.”

”But their sons [were accepting]. And now the sons were kissing us on both cheeks and the fathers were smiling. They’d gotten it by now. There were only warm feelings. That’s a moment I’ll remember my whole life. And it wasn’t about me. That’s important. They just picked someone to put the medal on and kiss. It was about Hospice du Rhone — all the people that had come, all the interest and enthusiasm, the sales that it sparked, and also about all the new relationships.”

”Throughout Hospice du Rhone, there’ve been all these collaborative wines that have emerged where French and American producers have teamed up and started making wines, started labels together. They all met at Hospice du Rhone. It’s really an unbelievable story in that sense and not one that can be attributed to any one person. It’s not my story. It’s not Vicki’s story or Mat’s story. It is purely the story of Hospice du Rhone.”

If you’d like to be part of the continuing story that is Hospice du Rhone, there’s still time to get tickets. The 2012 celebration takes place in Paso Robles, April 27 - 28. For more information and to get tickets visit www.hospicedurhone.org.

If you’d like to read even more about Hospice du Rhone, here are some additional articles:
Looking Forward to Hospice du Rhone 2012
10 Big Wine Events to Look Forward to in Early 2012

Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day One
Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day Two 

There’s more coming from my conversation with John Alban. Look for that next week, before the big event. For the remainder of this week, I’ll be posting brief articles on a range of subjects at NorCalWine. The majority of my time, however, will be spent doing in-depth research on the vineyards and wineries of the Lodi AVA for future articles.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Napa Valley Premiere - Competitive Juices Yield Record Prices

On Saturday, February 22, 225 one-of-a-kind lots of meticulously produced Napa Valley wine were offered at auction to some of the world’s most passionate and well-moneyed wine sellers and restauranteurs. Four-and-a-half hours later the last gavel fell and a record $5.9 million had been realized, nearly doubling last year’s take which had been an all-time record itself.

2014pnv-6671
The gavel falls on the last lot at the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction.
Photo Bob McClenahan.

The proceeds of Napa Valley Premiere go to support the efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners in promoting, preserving and improving that AVA, but there’s much more on the line. There is pride. There’s reputation. And, to some extent, there’s the promise of winery revenue. Stratospheric auction results aren’t an abstract number. They are to some degree a measure of the winery’s reputation, the star-power of the winemaker. Top results mean a press release and the opportunity to edge the price of all wines upward.

One particularly competitive winemaker stumbled toward me, crestfallen. “I’m a loser!” he said. This from a guy who was actually among the top sellers. But a handful of lots had gone for more than his best. Moments later when the 60-bottle lot of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch sold for a mind-blowing $260,000, he looked like he wanted to throw up. He was now “loser” by an order of magnitude.

For the most part though, Napa Valley Premiere was an “all smiles” event. Dozens of winery-hosted events earlier in the week had drawn trade buyers, top sommeliers and press to the valley. New releases, library wines and the auction cuvees were poured side-by-side. There were big dinners, quiet meetings, cocktail parties, dancing and more.

The after-lunch auction itself was preceded by a tasting of all the lots that morning in the historic barrel room of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. It’s the best meet-and-greet-and-taste that this country’s most important wine region offers with samples poured by the winemakers, proprietors or both for a crowd small enough to enable friendly conversation and detailed questions.

I didn’t taste every wine this time, opting instead for deeper conversations and very detailed notes on a select number of wines which I was reviewing for the St. Helena Star. Alder Yarrow did make it to nearly every barrel though, so keep an eye on Vinography for his commentary.

Of the wines I did taste, I found much to love. There was the savory complexity of the Mt. Brave and the dynamically fruited Ovid. Oakville Ranch offered yet another supple, stunningly gorgeous Cabernet Franc. Inglenook’s wine is showing heightened sophistication under estate manager Philippe Bascaules. New label Pulido-Walker debuted with a wine made by Thomas Brown that offered amazingly pure aromas of freshly crushed black currants. Another wine by Brown, for THE GRADE, offered mineral-laden scents and a beautifully creamy mouthfeel. Schramsberg refreshed and delighted with a late-disgorged sparkling wine from the 1993 vintage. I taste thousands of wines every year. Many of them are truly excellent. Nonetheless my pen was shocked to be writing scores such as 95, 96 and 97 with such frequency. 

Quick Stats for the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction

Auction lots - 225
Total revenue - $5.9 million
Average bottle price - $283
Highest-selling debut offering - Pulido-Walker for $65,000

Top Ten Lots
$260,000 from The Wine House for 60 bottles of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch
$100,000 from Beverage Warehouse for 60 bottles of ZD Wines made by Brandon deLeuze and Chris Pisani
$100,000 from Zoes Restaurant for 60 bottles of Shafer made by Elias Fernandez
$100,000 from Bounty Hunter for 60 bottles of Schrader made by Thomas Brown
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Robert Mondavi Winery made by Genevieve Janssens
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Cakebread Cellars made by Julianne Laks
$85,000 from Wine Library for 120 bottles of Bevan Cellars & Chateau Boswell made by Russell Bevan
$80,000 from Cliffewood Wine Syndicate for 240 bottles of Reynolds Family, Constant and David Arthur made by Steve Reynolds
$80,000 from Imbibe Wine & Spirits for 60 bottles of VHR Vine Hill Ranch made by Francoise Peschon
$80,000 from Total Wine for 240 bottles of Silver Oak made by Daniel Baron

Top Five Bottle Prices
$4,333 for Scarecrow
$1,666 for ZD Wines
$1,666 for Shafer
$1,666 for Schrader
$1,333 for VHR Vine Hill Ranch

Most Represented Winemakers
Thomas Brown - eight wineries
Philippe Melka - seven wineries
Aaron Pott - four wineries

Top Grossing Winemakers
$340,000 - Celia Welch
$302,000 - Philippe Melka
$255,000 - Thomas Brown
$113.000 - Russell Bevan 

Top Buyers
Total Wine & More of Potomac, MD
Bounty Hunter of Napa, CA
Cliffewood Wine Syndicate of Little Rock, AR
Wine Library of Springfield, NJ
The Wine House of Los Angeles, CA
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace of Madison, NJ
Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo, Japan
Beverage Warehouse of Los Angeles, CA
Yakiniku Hiroshi of Honolulu, HI
Meritage Wine Market of Encinitas, CA
Zoes Restaurant of Virginia Beach, VA
HEB of San Antonio, TX.

Specifics on each wine can be found at http://premierenapawines.com/2014/

Download a Full List of 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction Wines & Realized Prices

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Coravin Reviewed: A “Wine Access Technology”

”I'll bet you I can drink wine out of this bottle without removing the cork?” So begins a party trick. The bottle is then turned upside-down, wine poured into the punt and drunk from it as if from a glass. It’s an amusing trick, but Coravin “wine access technology” has stolen the punchline. Now you really can drink the contents of a wine bottle without pulling the cork.

Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht faced a challenge when pregnancy forced his wife into a wine-drinking hiatus. Drinking a full bottle in one evening was no longer an option. How do you enjoy a glass or two of wine from a great bottle without the remaining quantity losing freshness in the follwing days?

There are various solutions to this problem: vacuum and seal, gas and seal, transfer to a smaller bottle, floating discs, etc. None worked to his satisfaction. Not one to settle for an easy but inferior fix, Lambrecht spent a decade inventing and fine-tuning something completely different. With his background in developing medical devices, he had the skillset to succeed.

The end product, Coravin, allows you to pour wine from a cork-sealed bottle without removing the cork. Coravin not only extracts the wine but fills the void with an inert gas. Argon is both perfectly safe and heavier than oxygen. It covers the remaining wine like a protective shield, preventing oxidation and preserving freshness.

Coravin wine access device
The Coravin in its stand. Photo: Fred Swan

I’m skeptical of wine gadgets by nature, especially those getting a lot of hype. I accepted an invitation to Coravin’s Napa Valley launch party in order to check the device out myself.

The device looks a little like one of those “Rabbit” corkpullers. Except Coravin clips onto the bottle and, instead of inserting a corkscrew, pushing down on the top of the device inserts a 17-gauge needle through the cork. The needle is made of surgical steel and coated with a Teflon-like substance for easy insertion.

Once the needle is in, you press a small button on the device to begin the flow of argon. Then, tip the bottle over to pour wine through the integrated spout. The process takes a little coordination but sounds more complicated than it is. Check out this demonstration I filmed.

 

Of course the fellow who performed the demo above works for Coravin. He has used the gizmo hundreds of time. It should look easy when he does it. What about someone trying it for the first time? I coaxed him into letting me wield the gadget myself.

It really is as simple as it looks. Pushing the needle into the cork takes very little pressure. You can easily do it with one finger. Pouring is a little awkward at first, but I didn't spill wine or break any glasses. I did forget to extract the needle before unclipping the Coravin, but even that didn't cause a problem.

So the Coravin is functional. What effect does it have on wine? Brand new wines I tasted at the soirée were perfectly fine coming out of the needle/spout contraption. I also tasted a 2008 Martinelli Chardonnay Zio Tony Vineyard first accessed via Coravin nearly four months prior. I'm not intimately familiar with that particular wine but the argon seemed to have done its job. I didn't note any signs of oxidation or other indications of development one wouldn't expect from a four-year old Russian River Valley Chardonnay.

Peter Granoff, a master sommelier and co-founder of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, has been testing the Coravin for about two years. He told me he's left Coravin-accessed bottles sitting half-filled for as long as a year and not noticed any degradation. "The only time it won't work," he told me, "is if the bottle has a dry, crumbling cork that doesn't reseal around the needle hole." He's only experienced that once.

Coravin has a razor-razorblade business model. The argon gas capsules only hold enough to fully displace about 75 ounces of wine, roughly 15 standard glasses. Replacement capsules cost $9.95 each, assuming you buy them in a 3-pack.

coravin capsules
Coravin argon capsules. Photo: Coravin

That said, if you're storing the bottles upright you don't really need to displace the entire volume of wine you pour. You just need to use enough gas to allow the wine to flow from the bottle. You can probably get 25 or so glasses out of a capsule once you've had a little practice.

If you're going to pony up $300 for wine-pouring thingy, you want it to last. I talked to Mike Rider, vice-president of engineering and operations at Coravin, about maintenance. Here's what I learned:

  • The needles have been tested beyond 1,000 insertions. I think that's enough to keep most people happy for at least three years, probably more.
  • Replacement needles are inexpensive and easy to install.
  • You should rinse the Coravin with warm water after each day of use. Just direct water into the pouring spout.
  • If you've used the Coravin with sweet wine, or have forgotten to clean it for quite a while, you can remove the residue with a little white vinegar.

Among the attendees at Coravin's Napa Valley event was Karen MacNeil, a respected wine educator and author of The Wine Bible. I asked her what she thought of the product. "I just think it's terrific. I love the idea of turning the problem around too," she added. "Instead of finding a way to replace the cork, you just don't remove it. That's the kind of thinking we need to apply to all kinds of problems." Well said.

Here are potential benefits I see for consumers in using a Coravin:

  • You can taste whichever of your wines you like without feeling the need to kill the bottle or the worry of oxidation.
  • Consumers may actually drink a little less because they don't have to worry about "wasting" a partial bottle and because pouring with Coravin takes more conscious thought than doing so from an open bottle.
  • Collectors can check the development status of wine in their cellar without having to consume a full bottle. This should lead to fewer wines ruined by excess aging.
  • Pairing different wines with the various courses of a home meal is more practical for couples and singles.
  • If you have friends whose tastes in wine you don't know, you can let them try a few different things and then open the bottle they like.

I also see benefits for the trade in using Coravin:

  • Restaurants and wine bars can significantly increase by-the-glass selections. That can lift both glass and bottle purchases.
  • Consumers may be more likely to buy expensive bottles at restaurants if there's a try-before-you-buy program. 
  • Restaurants sitting on expensive bottles that don't sell can clear them out with by-the-glass sales over the course of a few weeks.
  • Restaurants can use higher quality wines for their food and wine pairing menus.
  • By-the-glass freshness may improve as wines are less likely to lose oxidize after the first couple of glasses.
  • Coravin is much cheaper than expensive auto-pour-and-gas cabinets.
  • Restaurants can offer "half-bottle" options even if they only have 750ml bottles.
  • Winery and distributor sales people can have fewer wasted bottles after pouring samples for buyers.
  • As a wine reviewer, I can try wine samples and then pass the bottles along to other writers rather than dumping the stuff. That's less wasteful and may allow us all to try and review more wines.

As good as Coravin seems to be, there are a few things you should be aware of:

  • If you put too much gas into a bottle, the wine can get a little frothy. That should settle out over time though.
  • Coravin does not work with pressurized bottles (ex. Champagne, Prosecco, sparkling Moscato). Don't even try it. The pressurization could make it a dangerous experiment and the wine won't flow properly anyway. Don't try this at home.
  • The TSA doesn't allow pressurized gas canisters on airplanes. Don't take your argon capsules with you when you fly.
  • Coravin does not work with screwcap wines or bottles with glass stoppers.
  • The more dense the "cork," the more difficult it is to push in the needle. Coravin will work with rubber and plastic corks but isn't ideal and will wear the needle out more quickly.
  • You don't need to remove the foil capsule on bottles before using Coravin. However, I recommend removing capsules from bottles produced in the early 1990's or before as those may contain lead.
  • If you store your wine on its side, you'll need to use more argon than if you leave the bottle upright. However, leaving the bottle upright for a long time risks the cork getting dry which would increase risks of oxidation.
  • I have not heard from anyone who has tried a Coravin-accessed bottle after more than a year, so we don't know the long term effect on aging.
  • In order to pour wine through Coravin you need to turn the bottle nearly upside-down. If the wine has sediment or tartrate crystals, they may wind up in the glass or clog the needle.

I also see two downsides of Coravin that are actually due to its effectiveness. It's now a lot easier for kids to raid their parents wine collection undetected. Selling counterfeit wine by filling expensive bottles with cheap stuff just got a lot easier to do and harder to spot. This could turn out to be a serious problem for collectors.

Conclusion

The Coravin work as advertised. It allows you to pour wine from a bottle without removing the cork. It keeps the remaining wine fresh by injecting argon gas. If stored properly, wines accessed with Coravin will remain good for an extended period of time.

Using Coravin is easy. Anybody with decent manual dexterity can do it. (You may want to lock bottles away from your underage kids, or lock up the Coravin, lest your collection dwindle without you realizing it.)

Coravin is expensive. But, if it lets a serious wine consumer get better use out of their cellar or reduces their visits to wine bars, amortizing the cost won't be be hard.

The Coravin 1000 kit that includes the device, a stand and two capsules costs $299. Additional capsules are $25 for three. Assuming you and a friend combine to drink three glasses of wine a day, that's about 219 Coravin uses in a year. (Once you've poured three glasses from a bottle using Coravin, you'd drink the rest by pulling the cork.) You'll need at least seven supplemental argon capsules. Your total cost per Coravin glass in the first year would be $1.68 (not including tax and shipping). For subsequent years, your only cost would be the gas.

I may well buy one myself.

 

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Spotlight on the Calistoga AVA

The Calistoga AVA became effective on January 7, 2010. Though it was the 15th region within the larger Calistoga AVA to achieve official TTB recognition, Calistoga has produced high-quality grapes and wine for more than a century. Winegrapes were first planted there in 1852. That was five years before Agoston Haraszthy founded California’s first premium winery (Buena Vista in Sonoma) and seven years before the town of Calistoga came into being. Napa Valley's first commercial winery was Charles Krug, established in 1862.

As with other early winegrowing areas in California, Calistoga suffered from bouts of phylloxera, economic declines and Prohibition. Many of its best properties fell into disuse between 1890 and the end of World War II. Renewed focus on the wine business came in the 1960’s but growth was slow. In 1990, only thirteen wineries called Calistoga home, the same as in 1890. But interest in Calistoga wines and vineyards has surged over the past 20 years. It's also a town winemakers enjoy living in. Today, there are more than 50 Calistoga-based wineries. [Not all of them make Calistoga AVA wine.]

Most of that number are new ventures, several of the area’s historic vineyards and wineries are also thriving. For example, Chateau Montelena, whose Chardonnay won the 1976 Tasting of Paris, was established (as Hillcrest) by Alfred Tubbs in 1882. It is still one of Calistoga’s most popular destinations. The Eisele Vineyard, originally planted in the 1880’s and owned by Bart and Daphne Araujo since 1990, generates some of California’s highest-rated Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The nearby Frediani Vineyard provides Carignane from 110-year old vines and excellent old vine Zinfandel. And it is one of the valley’s few remaining sources of Charbono.

The town of Calistoga remains closely tied with its own history, more so than others in the valley. It’s early industries were mining, agriculture and tourism. Enterprising San Franciscan Sam Brannan created the area’s first hot springs in 1862 and, six years later, finished a railway line that brought spa-goers to his door from the ferry terminus south of Napa. Today, visitors have nine mineral pool spas to choose from. Five feature Calistoga’s reknowned volcanic ash mud baths.

Calistoga has worked to preserve it’s heritage by managing growth. The newest buildings on the main drag (Lincoln Street) are about fifty years old. The compact business district is easy to walk and caters to Calistoga residents as well as tourists. Fast food franchises are prohibited in town and chain stores are absent.

Calistoga and the Vaca Range
Calistoga has maintained its authenticity as rural spa get-away. Photo: Fred Swan

Location

The Calistoga AVA is a parcel of approximately seven square miles located in northwestern Napa Valley. It stretches from the Mayacamas Range of mountains on the west into the Vaca Range in the east. The northeastern boundary is irregularly shaped, its fingers poking into hidden valleys and plantable slopes between mountain ridges, nearly interlocking with the Howell Mountain AVA. The southeastern edge abuts the St. Helena AVA. The long southwestern edge is bordered by the Diamond Mountain AVA. To the northwest, the Napa-Sonoma county line forms the boundary. Compared to other Napa Valley AVAs that span the valley, there is little flat valley floor acreage in Calistoga.

small napa valley ava map 2012

calistoga-ava-map-detail
Maps courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners. Used with permission.

Climate

Calistoga has a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and most of the rainfall coming during winter. Calistoga has the highest peak temperatures of any AVA in Napa Valley, sometimes surpassing 100 degrees during the growing season. Most of the appellation falls into the upper range of Region III on the Winkler-Amerine heat summation scale. A few zones are in the low-end of Region IV.

The mercury drops sharply at night. Cool Russian River zephyrs pour through the Chalk Hill wind gap and cold air drops into the valley from the mountains. Thus, Calistoga has the largest diurnal temperature variation among Napa Valley AVAs, sometimes as much as 60 degrees. As a result, Calistoga's average daily temperature is actually lower than that of the St. Helena AVA.

Calistoga’s daytime warmth and generous sun are well-suited to ripening bold reds. The brisk evenings allow sugar levels to drop, maintaining balancing acidity and lengthening the growing season for full phenolic ripeness.

Calistoga is the wettest AVA in Napa Valley with 38 - 60 inches of rain per year. The actual amount of precipitation varies substantially from year to year, and also between different vineyards in any given year. Those vineyards highest in elevation tend to get the most rain. Humidity is moderate and lower than in most of Napa Valley due to Calistoga’s distance from San Pablo Bay and the relative absence on fog.

Details

Latitude: ~ 38.57 - 38.61 degrees

Elevation: 300 - 1,200 feet

Climate: Mediterranean, upper Range III to low Range IV

Annual Rainfall: 38 - 60 inches, falling primarily during winter

Soils: Various forms and derivatives volcanic soil originating with the Sonoma Volcanic activities that occurred 4 - 10 million years ago. The bedrock is solid volcanic material. (The wine cave at Kelly Fleming Winery provides a great look at rhyolitic bedrock.)

Above the bedrock Calistoga offers a range of soils: fine and heavy ash, stone-studded loam, cobbles and, in the alluvial fans, clay or silt. The granularity and depth of the soil vary considerably across the AVA. Most is well-drained and vigor-limiting.

Vineyard Acres: 2,500 plantable acres

Primary Grape Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah

AVA Organization: Calistoga Winegrowers 

kfvineyard
Kelly Fleming Winery, like many others in the Calistoga AVA, is tucked in a valley you can't see from a main road. Photo: Fred Swan

Wineries located in Calistoga*

Amici Cellars (Aiken Wines and Meander are co-located)
Araujo Estate Wines
Atlalon winery
Aubert
Barlow Vineyards
B Cellars
Bennett Lane Winery
Canard Vineyard
Calistoga Cellars
Carter Cellars (co-located with Envy Wines)
Carver-Sutro Wines
Chateau Montelena
Clos Pegase Winery
Coquerel Family Estate Wines
Cuvaison Estate Wines
Dutch Henry Winery
EMH Vineyards
Envy Wines
Frank Family Vineyards
Helena View/Johnston Vineyards
Jax Vineyards
Jericho Canyon Vineyard
Jones Family Vineyards
Joseph Cellars Winery
Kelly Fleming Winery
Kenefick Ranch Vineyards & Winery
La Sirena
Larkmead Vineyards
Lava Vine
Madrigal Vineyards
Olabisi Wines
Paoletti Estates Winery
Phifer Pavit Date Night Wines
Rios Wine Company
Robert Pecota
Shypoke
Sterling Vineyards
Storybook Mountain Vineyards
Summers Estate Wines
Switchback Ridge
Teachworth
The Grade Cellars
Tofanelli Family Vineyard
Tom Eddy Winery
T-Vine Cellars
Twomey Cellars
Venge
Vermeil Wines
Vincent Arroyo Winery
Watermark
Zahtila Vineyards
Ziata

 *This list is based upon the location of the winery or tasting room. Wineries that have Calistoga mailing addresses but are located elsewhere, such as Diamond Mountain AVA, are not included above. Nor are wineries that make Calistoga AVA wine but are not located therein. On the other hand, there are a few wineries above, such as Aubert, that don't currently make Calistoga AVA wine but are physically located within the AVA.

A Selection of Significant Calistoga Vineyards (beyond those named as wineries above)

Amoenus Vineyard (Turnbull Wine Cellars)
Blueline Vineyard (Hourglass Wines)
Eisele Vineyard (Araujo Estate)
Fisher Vineyards, Napa Valley Estate
Frediani Vineyard (Vermeil Wines)
Palisades Vineyard (Carver-Sutro)
Three Palms Vineyard (Owned by Sloan and John Upton, Duckhorn has exclusive rights)

 

Where to Stay in Calistoga

wmudbathprofile3A 1For an authentic, uniquely Calistoga experience, choose Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. Right on Lincoln Ave., it's no more than a 10-minute walk to any of the downtown tasting rooms, restaurants or shops. Rooms range from recently remodeled motel room overlooking the patio to bungalows with a kitchen. The spa offers everything from facials, massages and mineral whirlpools to Calistoga's best mud bath (see photo at right). Room rates start at $149.

Solage Calistoga offers a high-end resort experience. Located on the valley floor south of town, it's elegant and modern yet relaxing. The chic rooms come with two cruiser bicycles and a semi-private patio. When the weather is good — which is most of the time in Calistoga — you can chill fashionably in their outdoor lounge or poolside cabanas. The on-site restaurant, Solbar, is one of the two best dining experiences to be had in Calistoga (more below). The spa is everything you'd expect from a top international resort. However, they offer mud body masks rather than the traditional Calistoga mud bath. Room rates start at about $350.

People who just want the best price on a clean, no-frills room head to Comfort Inn Calistoga. It books up fast Spring, Summer and Fall. Rates start around $104.

Where to Eat in Calistoga

JoLe Farm to Table - My top recommendation for Calistoga dining is JoLe. Organic, locally-farmed ingredients are prepared with imagination and beautifully plated. The succulent food leans toward Mediterranean-inspired small plates but goes well beyond. The dining room is elegant, but we sat at the broad marble dining bar and had a great conversation with the fellow manning the wood-fired oven and doing much of the plating. I went for six-course tasting menu ($80). Everything I tried was delicious, but I swooned over the Grilled Octopus with Chorizo, Potatoes and Olives as well as the Lamb Neck Poutine with Polenta Fries, Feta and Peppers. And don't miss the Warm Hazelnut Crepes with Brown Sugar Ice Cream and Toffee for dessert. The one-page wine list is full of very good choices and everything, except a handful of reserve items, is available by the glass, half-carafe or bottle. Corkage is $15. JoLe, at 1457 Lincoln Ave., opens at 5pm Thursday - Sunday.

JoLeOctopus
The grilled octopus at JoLe really grabbed me. Photo: Fred Swan

Solbar - The Michelin-starred restaurant of the Solage resort satisfies both famished wine tasters and the spa crowd with a menu that's divided into "healthy, ligher dishes" and "hearty cuisine." There are wonderful choices on each from meat-free dishes such as Sunchoke and Potato Agnolotti with Arrabiata Sauce, Broccoli Romanesco, Smoked Potatoes and Sunchoke Chips to a stick-to-your-ribs Free Range Chicken ala Plancha with housemade Andouille, Etouffé Sauce, Griddled Cheddar Grits and Red Mustard Greens. If you've not been to Solage before, driving Silverado Trail in the dark of night while trying to locate the restaurant can be harrowing. I recommend advance reconnaissance, or arrive early and enjoy the lounge. (I've found the drink service to be slow. Allow plenty of time if you're in the mood for a pre-dinner cocktail.)

Hydro Bar & Grill - A local’s favorite that claims to have the best hamburgers in town. I haven’t tried every burger in Calistoga, but Hyrdro’s really is good. 1403 Lincoln Ave., open daily 8:30am to 10pm+

Palisades Deli Cafe - This little cafe is a local favorite for it's hearty and creative sandwiches. It's also a good place to pick up a quick cup of coffee and breakfast sandwich or burrito as you head out for a morning of tastings. It's located in the entrance of the historic Calistoga Train Depot.

Cal Mart - An independent, family-owned grocery store just across the street from Dr. Wilkinson's, is a Calistoga institution. It's been there since 1968 and offers all the stuff you'd expect, including hot, prepared foods, made-to-order sandwiches and a very good cheese department. It's the place to go for picnic fixings.

 

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Mud bath photo: Dr. Wilkinson's. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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