Exploring Napa Valley’s Zin Underground









Photo – Bob McClenahan, courtesy of Visit Napa Valley

A Two Day Featured Route through Napa Valley’s Hidden Zinfandel Producers

Since Napa Valley has a daunting selection of approximately 375 wineries, 150 restaurants, and 130 lodgings, it is highly recommended that you have a good plan in place to spend your time wisely. To make it easy, we have created an adventurous two-day itinerary for you of 5 Napa Valley Zinfandel secret cellars, along with a hit list of suggested places to stay and eat that will make your trip a memorable one. It’s important to take note that most of the best Napa Valley Zinfandels such as these are from rare, small vineyards. Obtaining bottles of sought-after Napa Valley Zinfandels simply requires taking immediate action when you find them in order to prevent getting shut out.

Day 1

Stop 1

Hendry Ranch
Blocks by George

From Napa’s Highway 29, exit at Trancas Avenue and head west for 2.5 miles on Redwood Road for your by-appointment-only special experience at the Hendry Ranch – one of Napa Valley’s most beloved hidden jewel properties and devoted grower of not just Zinfandel but a dozen other vinifera varieties, and it does them all extremely well, including Cabernet Sauvignon.

Across Napa’s Dry Creek at the western edge of the historic Oak Knoll District, where volcanic Mt. Veeder starts torise, lay the historic Hendry Ranch home and winery. The Hendry family has been farming here for nearly 80 years and scientist proprietor George Hendry, who grew up on the ranch, knows his dirt like the backs of his weatheredfarming hands.

Identified as “blocks”, the diverse Hendry Ranch vineyards contain thirteen varieties(Cabernet too) including Zinfandel block 28 and blocks 7 and 22. Hendry is also the rare winery that produces Zinfandel’s Italian twin, Primitivo.

George and his veteran vine-whisperer nephew Mike Hendry know that all the ranch’s blocks’ wines reveal unique character and structure traits according to soil type and vine clonal type. When you immerse yourself in a guided vineyard tour and tasting – quite possibly with George or Mike themselves, you come away enlightened about what goes into the practice of farming grapes and crafting world class wines at the highest level. Hendry’s wine’sare pure, balanced and ageworthy. The engaging, educational visits either indoors or outdoors requireappointments in advance. Hendry Ranch waives the tasting fees with equivalent purchases of wine.

Stop 2

Saddleback Cellars
Living Legend in Oakville

From Hendry Ranch, head north on Highway 29 up to Oakville and make a right on the Oakville Cross Rd. Heading east, it’s a short jaunt up to Money Lane. Make a left and head north a quarter mile to Saddleback Cellars – arelatively modest, old school anomaly among some of the most prized real estate in the entire world.

The proprietor here is a true hall of fame, Napa Valley living legend, Nils Venge (pronounced Veng-gi), who is memorialized as the first American Winemaker to achieve a 100 point score. (His achievement being for the 1985Cabernet he made for his nearby neighbor Groth Winery.) Head into the Saddleback tasting room and don’t be a bit surprised if you bump into a tall, distinguished gentleman with a twinkle in his eye – Nils himself poking around his cellar and tasting room which is set among the barrels. Seize your moment and get a bottle signed – stat! Apicnic table outside under the oaks would likely be the site of your outdoor tasting.

Saddleback makes primarily Cabernet Sauvignons from the family’s estate vineyards but a sought-after secret weapon in the Saddleback arsenal is a Zinfandel from the iconic Frediani Vineyard in Calistoga. Every Zin-maker would want to get their hands on some of the Frediani’s prized grapes but Nils and son Kirk’s winery – Venge- are locked in. Nils applies the same deft touch and bold approach to his Zin as he does his Cabs. Limited in production, this Zinfandel has a fanatical following among Saddleback’s customer list and sells out every vintage, so when you make your appointment ahead of time, it would be a good idea to ask first if the Frediani Zinfandel is available!

Stop 3

Chase Cellars
St.Helena History in a Glass

From Oakville, make a right turn onto Highway 29 and head north. This might be a good time to check in to your hotel – the Rancho Caymus Inn: A Boutique Napa Valley Hotel, refresh, and grab a bite to eat, maybe even get in a quick “Napa nap” before heading to your next Zinfandel stop just up the road at Chase Cellars, St. Helena.

From Rancho Caymus Inn, it’s a pretty short throw to a winery and property in Helena that is as deep in Napa Valley history as Napa history gets – Chase Cellars. From Rutherford, head north on Highway 29 for a few minutes to Sulphur Springs Rd. Turn left and continue for about a mile, stay to the right, and you will find the historic and unassuming Chase Cellars (on the right, 2252- there is no Chase Cellars sign) – right by the great Hayne Vineyard – arguably the greatest Zinfandel vineyard in California and the world? Discuss.

The Century-old head-pruned vines are dry-farmed using sustainable practices. Tons of love, nurturing, and family pride per acre are required here to keep the tradition going strong. If a vine needs replacing, a cutting from a healthiest vine is used, thus preserving the vineyard’s special genetics. To a Zinfandel-lover this is hallowed ground.

Proprietor Katie Simpson is a direct descendant of the Bourns, the Simpsons, and the Haynes whose history you can trace back to the 1870’s in St. Helena (pronounced Saint Hel-ee-na) and San Francisco. Let the kind and knowledgeable staff led by Alise Merritt and the affable young host Brian Liu regale you with colorful family stories of old gold mines and early-California glory. When you taste one of the delicious wines here, you can virtually feel the old vines joining in with you – they’re that close!

Katie’s winemaker is the burly, talented Russell Bevan who has become a renowned winemaker in California due his own high-scoring cult Cabernets. Combine a great historic vineyard with a winemaker who is known for coaxing every drop of pleasure from a grape, and you get Chase. As for style, Bevan likes to step on the gas – but with limits. The wines here are decadent and expressive – oozing Zinfandel character and that particular taste of the place – terroir. Tasting in the tasting room or under the shady 90+ year- old olive trees beside the gnarled vines of Hayne Vineyard is a special experience. If she’s not out in the vineyard, it’s not unusual for Katie to be found around the tasting room, chatting with visitors, and pouring tastes. Don’t hesitate to impose and get a couple of autographed bottles!

The Chase estate wines are very small production – (only so much wine comes from an old vineyard) and are not available in stores. Only a few bottles go to lucky restaurants so be sure to be on the mailing list or in one of their club levels.

Look for the Hayne Estate bottling – some to drink, some to keep, and jump on the Reserve Zinfandel if it is available.

Food and Lodging in Napa

Your first day of ZinTrail-hopping complete, you will want to wind down at your lodging and look forward to some great Napa Valley dining. Napa Valley has become almost as famous for its food as its wines. There are two C.I.A.campuses (Culinary Institute of America) for gosh-sakes…one in St. Helena, one in Napa.

In Rutherford, an excellent informal choice would be the Rutherford Grill adjacent to Beaulieu Vineyards. No reservations are taken here but the waits go fast. Comfort food done superbly and a great bar scene, you will beamong not just fellow wine lovers but a who’s who of Napa Valley wine industry owners, winemakers, and workerbees. For the best steakhouse experience in Napa Valley, just up the road toward St. Helena is Press Restaurant with indoor and outdoor valley view tables, an excellent bar and bar menu, pro service, and an all-star wine list featuring an awesome collection of hundreds of curated Napa Valley classics.

In downtown Napa, the luxe new Archer Hotel is home to Charlie Palmer’s and in the heart of the fabulous FirstStreet Napa neighborhood. Take the elevator up to the rooftop bar for a glass of wine, a bite to eat and take in thebreathtaking view of Napa Valley. Norman Rose TavernCa Momi, Oenotri, and for the wine geeks the excellent Compline wine bar and restaurantare all in strolling distance on First St. A few blocks down Main St. Morimoto is a great option for sushi and steaks. Locals and visitors alike love Coles ChopHouse set in it’s historic stone building also on Main St.

Napa – Day 2

Stop 1

Tres Sabores
Farming for Flavors

Start your day with the beautiful breakfast at Rancho Caymus and get ready for a wonderful full immersion into thecertified organic ecosystem and winery that is Tres Sabores.

With your appointment pre-arranged, from Rutherford, drive north on Highway 29, then make a left onto Whitehall Lane at the railroad tracks. Head west toward the mountains for about a mile then stay to the left after the stonebridge. In less than a mile you will find the entrance driveway to Tres Sabores and you will have passed through a portal into a very special place. In Napa Valley, there is nothing quite like it. Not just a winery, Tres Sabores is the certified organic CCOF working vineyard, farm, gardens, and home of proprietor/winemaker Julie Johnson.

Upon arrival, take a moment to reset and start taking it all in. Every aspect of Tres Sabores is part of aninterconnected world of grapevines, cover crops, wild flora and fauna, goats, sheep, fowl, bluebirds, owls, bees, flowers, insects, ancient olives, rare species of pomegranates, fruit trees and vegetables. Everywhere you look is a view into the sustainable interaction of farming and nature. Julie eschews the use of any chemicals on her ranch and even uses the natural ambient yeast from the environment to ferment her wines.

And what beautiful wines they are! Meaning “three flavors”, Tres Sabores represents the taste of the grape, the land (terroir), and the art of the winemaker. Tastings of Julie’s wines are typically hosted under the huge ancient olive trees or in the gardens surrounding the winery and tasting room. Your view looks out over the legendary stretch of Napa Valley known as the Rutherford Bench and the Vaca Mountains to the east. This is a prime Napa Valley settingthat you will hate to leave!

Between her stints working in the vineyard, nurturing wines, and tending to the animals, Julie makes time for visitingwith customers – many of whom have become longtime supporters and dear friends.

The diligent farming here is implemented to create healthy living soils that drive the ideal ripening of grapes. Thesignature style of Julie’s estate Zinfandel from her 50 year-old vines are fine tannins, complex aromatics of berries, black fruits, stony earth, spices, and lasting flavors: everything is in balance – just as the ranch’s environment itself. This Zin has an avid following, even among fellow winemakers! Production from the estate of course is limited and in strong demand. Best to ensure bottles by joining one of the Tres Sabores wine clubs or better yet making regularreturn visits for some healthy attitude adjustment.

Tres Sabores is dogs and kids friendly, and wine-friendly snacks can be arranged in advance.

Stop 2

Green and Red Vineyard
Sculpting Zinfandel

What fascinated art professor Jay Heminway on his field trips from Berkeley to Napa in the 1960’s was the colors in the soil in the mountains just east of Napa Valley. Here Serpentine, California’s greenish state rock is layered with iron rich red chert. Hard to visualize how these elevated mountain soils were born from the Pacific Ocean floor, butwhat Heminway saw was an opportunity to revitalize a piece of this eastern portion of Napa Valley that was once a thriving vineyard area and the site of the first flour mill in Northern California. Jay’s grape of choice was the one that was planted around here in the 1800’s – Zinfandel. Over years, Jay went on to establish his home here and plant three vineyards: Chiles Mill, Catacula, and Tip Top – each vineyard with its own personality based on their locationson the mountain.

Sadly, Jay passed away in 2019 but his wife Pam and daughter Tobin – who grew up here helping her dad craft hiswines are keeping the dream alive and assuring that the vineyards and wine are as great as ever.

With your appointment time all set, get ready for a beautiful drive through rugged eastern Napa. From Rutherford Cross Rd., Take highway 128 East from Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail past Lake Hennessey to Pope Valley Road. Turn left, follow along Chiles Creek then, after Moore Creek Park, keep your eyes peeled for a hard right turn up the Green and Red driveway at 3208 Pope Valley Rd.

Removed from the hubbub of Napa Valley proper, a tasting experience here is down-to-earth, friendly, and personalized. Superbly crafted wines by winemaker Aaron Whitlatch, a rural mountain setting, the cave cellar, and personal contact with the family make for a Napa Valley experience that frankly puts the large commercial operations to shame. Time, weather, and harvest demands permitting, Green and Red often offers jeep tours up toTip Top, the pinnacle of the winery’s estate with a panoramic view. Visits can be booked via Green and Red. Tastingfees are waived for two people with the purchase of a case of wine. And oh, be sure to ask about the great storybehind Green and Red’s mysterious label art.

More To Explore!

Photo – Bob McClenahan, courtesy of Visit Napa Valley

Heading back down the mountains and back to the valley after your two winery adventures, you may have time to explore a little more of Napa Valley. We suggest that when you come to the Silverado Trail, take a right and venture up north to the historic town of Calistoga. “The Trail” as it’s known locally has no commercial activity or services other than wineries and vineyards. Author Robert Louis Stevenson chronicled the area in his book “Silverado Squatters”, all about the mining of cinnabar which was in great demand for gold extraction during the Gold Rushdays. Calistoga is better known historically as a spa-town. Resorts offering health treatments such as mud baths and hot springs bathing are many. Indian Springs is a popular spot for vacationers as they offer small cottages aslodging in addition to all the spa amenities.

In Calistoga on the main drag, Lincoln Ave., there is a little precious cache of sorts of excellent Zinfandels at the tasting room of August Briggs. Here winemaker proprietors Matt Gasco and Collette Milliaman pour and offer for purchase examples of their small production wines from revered historic vineyards.

It may be time to be thinking about dinner plans after your second day of Zin Trailing. Up Valley there is no shortage of options. A world-class wellness retreat, Solage, also features a favorite upvalley restaurant and bar called Solbar thatutilizes local ingredients for the menu. In St. Helena, Charter Oak by Michelin three-stars chef Christopher Kostow utilizes open-hearth cooking and features a beautiful shaded patio. Yountville has become known world-wide as a culinary capital but a local favorite is Ad Hoc, Chef Thomas Keller’s garden to table spot, where the menu features a four course meal of the day served family style. Yountville is also home to the new Perry Lang’s and some of the best authentic Italian-casual cooking in the valley, Ciccio.


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