One of the busiest winemakers in the business today, Nils Venge has carved yet another notch in his enological belt.
A well known vintner, grower and consultant to many start-ups in the Napa Valley, Venge has been planting, pruning, crushing, fermenting, blending and bottling in vineyards and cellars around the valley for more than three decades.
Everybody knows Nils, especially innkeeper Mark Carter, Venge’s latest partner in a brand new venture known as Envy Wines.
A mutual friend introduced the two men quite a while back, while Venge was making wines at Groth Vineyards and Winery. During his tenure at Groth, Venge’s talents received worldwide notoriety when wine critic Robert Parker Jr. awarded a perfect 100 score to Groth’s 1985 reserve cabernet sauvignon.
In the early ’80s, Venge launched his own Saddleback Cellars project and was the star attraction at the first winemaker dinner hosted at Carter House, an enclave of four magnificent Victorians perched alongside Humboldt Bay in Old Town Eureka owned and operated by Mark Carter. He would become a regular at Carter House, regaling guests with wine lore while pouring incredible wines he’d made.
“I used to go through sheets of rain to get there,” Venge recalled the other day in the cellar of his newest venture. “In my old VW bus,” he added with a hearty laugh.
As Carter put together an incredible wine list at his renowned inn and restaurant, he also began bugging Venge about making a wine Carter could call his own.
“But I didn’t have any (spare) grapes,” Venge recounted. Carter’s desire to launch a wine brand would remain on the back burner for years — until Carter “scoured around” for grapes that didn’t have a home. In a deal that involved exchanging this fruit for that, Carter wound up with a couple of tons of cabernet sauvignon from Soda Canyon. His friend, Nils Venge, kept his promise to help Carter make his own wine and with the 1998 harvest, Carter Cellars was born.
By 2000, Carter was able to secure grapes from the renowned To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville. Carter’s wines have been getting high marks ever since, with the limited releases — made by winemaker Jeff Fontanella — selling out shortly after release every year.
That enduring friendship prompted the two men to team up for the launching of Envy Wines. Carter said he transferred land holdings as his contribution while Venge put up cash he received in a settlement for losses incurred in the big Vallejo warehouse fire a few years ago. (Venge lost 6,000 cases of wine in the arson fire, mostly two vintages of reserve cabernet sauvignon.)
The pair purchased the former Calistoga Cellars wine operation, including 11.2 acres of cabernet sauvignon and merlot vines, on Tubbs Lane in the northern reaches of Napa Valley.
While title to the property changed just last December, the site is up and running as Envy Wines, with Venge, Carter and four employees — winemaker Jeff Fontanella, cellarmaster Richard Carter, marketing director Meredith Langford and tasting room rep Andrew Seagrave — quite busy already producing and selling some 1,500 cases of Envy’s inaugural releases.
Production of Envy Wines will eventually climb to 5,000 cases, says Venge. And the new operation will be home as well to Carter’s own wines and another small Venge brand, Vine Haven.
Envy’s four offerings include cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, a blend of cabernet, merlot and petite sirah called Bee Bee’s blend (named for a well-liked family dog the Venge family lost this year as a result of tainted pet food), plus some 500 cases of sauvignon blanc. While the reds will be made primarily from estate fruit (save for a little petite sirah that comes from George Moskowite at Lake Berryessa), the sauvignon blanc will be made with purchased fruit, Venge says.
In addition to making wine or serving as consulting winemaker for Saddleback Cellars, Keenan Winery, PlumpJack, Del Dotto, Moss Creek and Bacio Divino, Venge teamed up a few years ago with his son, Kirk (who’s following in his father’s footsteps) to painstakingly restore and reopen the Rossini Ranch winemaking operation started by Swiss Italian immigrant Carlo Rossini in the late 1800s on Crystal Springs Road.
We tasted through the current releases and here’s our impressions:
Envy Wines 2006 Sauvignon Blanc ($26): The partners call this one a white for red wine drinkers. The fruit is from Kathryn Hall Vineyards and they got enough to make 500 cases. It’s definitely not Kiwi or Sancerre styled. Full-bodied, with great acid, offering stone fruit, pears and pineapple in both nose and palate, and a big fat squirt of lemon on the finish. Look for Envy’s sauvignon blanc to reflect the fruit’s terroir each harvest, which means that we probably won’t get this particular offering next year unless Venge’s able to talk the Halls out of more sauvignon blanc this harvest.
Envy Wines 2005 Petite Sirah ($45): A berry nose follows through on the palate as blackberries and blueberries explode in the mouth in a spicy, oak-integrated representation of this seductive wine grape. Only 95 cases were made, so this one won’t last long once the word gets out.
Envy Wines 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($55): Light in body but big in taste, this is an elegant Venge cab, with sexy spice and dark red fruit, plus the taste of red plums filling the mouth and lingering on the slightly smoky finish. Production was 225 cases.
Envy Wines 2005 Bee Bee’s Blend ($70): Spice and brambly fruit are the hallmarks of this attractive blend of merlot (50 percent), cabernet sauvignon (47 percent) and petite sirah (3 percent). Only 92 cases were produced from the 2005 harvest, again a wine that speaks to its creative cellar talent, a wine with lots of mid-palate fruit and a warming chocolatey finish.
Envy Wines is at 1170 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga, with tasting room hours of 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.