Before it was the Vintner’s Collective, the building at the corner of Clinton and Main streets was a Chinese laundry, a deli, a butcher’s shop, a brothel and a saloon. It was built in the 1860s and was one of the first operating businesses in Napa County. It is also the first collective tasting room in Napa; a concept that has exploded in poularity in the last five years in downtown Napa.
Today the handsome stone building, which was damaged in the August 2014 earthquake, closed and then opened nine months later, is a tasting room representing some two dozen small-production boutique wineries from Ancien and Azur Wines to Treasure Wines and Vinoce, with over 100 wines in stock.
Behind the counter Kevin Green answered questions and poured wine: “What we pour is basically customized to a guest’s palate. We ask, what do you like to buy and drink at home, so we customize a flight off that.”
Four tasting options are available, from $10 to $95.
Green, who started in the tasting room in early February, said his favorite producers include Philippe Melka, Julian Feyard, Luc Morlet, Ken Bernard and Rolando Herrera. “We are big fans of Rolando and his story with his label ‘Mi Sueno,’ meaning ‘My Dream’ in Spanish. He is living the true American dream, born and raised in Mexico, coming to the Napa Valley for jobs in the vineyard, building rocks walls, working in the cellar and creating his label.”
What brought us here? The assignment was simple: Spend a sunny Thursday afternoon in downtown Napa, sampling the wines and getting the stories from those in the tasting rooms. We didn’t get to all of them but we found plenty of both wines and stories. Catherine Bugue, a person who loves drinking and writing about wine, parked her car and we were off.
OUTLAND — Caitlyn McCormick and Danielle Shehab were sitting at a table in an airy, sunlit space. Although Outland Fine Wines, the tasting room for Poe, Farella and Fornlorn Hope has been open since late December, its grand opening was March 11.
Samantha Sheehan, owner and winemaker of Poe, makes her wines at Tom Farella’s Coombsville property. Both sought a space close to the downtown and when the lease became available last spring, Sheehan jumped on it and reached out to Mathew Rorick, who owns a vineyard and winery in Murphys, Calaveras County with his family. “Forlorn Hope is very much off the beaten path, both figuratively and literally,” McCormick said.
All of the wines are premium and visitors can taste by the glass, bottle or flight, which range from $30 to $38 per flight — or just buy a bottle to take home.
Poe wines include chardonnay, rose, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and vermouth, sold both by the glass and by the bottle.
Farella’s offerings are sauvignon blanc, malbec, syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and an Alta Reserve, which is $42 a glass (served from Coravin) and $150 a bottle.
Shehab, director of operations for Forlorn Hope, said Rorick has been making wine for more than 10 years. “His focus is to honor the past of California and the grapes that were grown here traditionally,” Shehab said, including chenin blanc, trousseau gris, grenache, pinot gris and petite sirah. On the 300 acres, of which 70 are planted in vines, there are 20 varieties of grapes planted.
Forlorn makes 2,500 to 3,000 cases. “Right now, we’re really excited about the chenin blanc that’s coming off the vineyard. The limestone soil is perfect for that combination of chenin,” Shehab said.
WINES ON FIRST – To reach the tasting room, walk down a paved alleyway past the entrance to Oenotri restaurant and it’s a door down on the right. Inside is Steve Sansone, wine director. Wines from three boutique Napa Valley wineries are poured: those from J. McClelland, PureCru and Jean Edwards Cellars. Flights range from $15 to $35.
SJ. McClelland Cellars is small production, about 1,000 cases and is the exclusive wine of the Grammy Awards; Mitch Cosentino, an iconic Napa Valley winemaker, has just finished his 37th harvest in the valley and makes PureCru wines in a wide range of styles, from chardonnays to rosé to cabernet sauvignon; Jean Edwards Cellars specialize in “gorgeous, single-designate cabs from all over the Napa Valley, Pritchard Hill, Stagecoach, Yates Family, the really good stuff,” he said.
The tasting room has been open since 2012 and is open late by design. Customers can order dinner from Oenotri, the well-regarded Italian restaurant, in the tasting room.
He added, “Downtown Napa is doing it the right way. Being a collective is the trend now, it is popular and a smart way to go, multiple small wineries come together in one space and offer an outlet to customers to try their boutique wines.”
JaM CELLARS – Butter, toast and jam are served in the space that looks like a living room, but they are for drinking, not eating. Butter is chardonnay, Toast is sparkling and Jam, of course, is cabernet sauvignon.
“Jambassador” Sofia Haspel said the space at 1460 First St., “is a very cool spot ... This is definitely not the typical standard tasting room, where you stand and get educated.” Haspel said that John and Michele Truchard opened this as the “fun and outgoing” side of their John Anthony tasting room right next door.
The JaM Cellar butter, toast and jam Napa Valley appellated wines are exclusive to the tasting room and there are others available as well, including Friends of JaM and Smith Devereux. Wines are sold by the glass and flights are either $15 or $20.
Haspel said the JaM wines are “approachable. Our cabs aren’t the typical huge, tannic, kick-to-the-mouth wines and our chardonnay is the same thing. I’m not a chardonnay drinker, yet I drink Butter in an obnoxious amount.”
CAPP HERITAGE – In a dark wood, traditional and beautiful tasting room at 1245 First St., Gary William Koehler stands behind the bar and wants to share the history of the Capp family, which is one of the oldest wine families in the Napa Valley. The story begins in 1845, when Dan Capp’s great-great-grandfather came across the Sierra Nevadas and homesteaded at the intersection of Highway 29 and Lincoln Avenue in Calistoga.
Koehler told about Capp’s ancestors, the Hudson family, their efforts in the Bear Flag revolt, earning a fortune in the Gold Rush and buying what would become the entire town of St. Helena.
“There’s a lot of history here,” he said, after telling the long and involved story. The Capp tasting room has been open for three years and Koehler has been a part of it “before it opened, before it was sheet rocked,” he said.
Tasting fees are $20. Wines range from chardonnay to cabernet and when asked about the Napa Valley barbera, he replied, “All you need to know is it is ‘hmm, hmm good. I can tell you all about the ripe plums, dark cherries and berries and all that kind of stuff but the two real words are ‘hmm, hmm good. That’s all you need to know.”
Every second Wednesday of the month, the tasting room hosts a song competition from the Napa chapter of the West Coast Songwriters Association. “We have judges, we give awards,” said Koehler, who is also a songwriter. “They will come here in August for the grand finale” and the dozen chapter winners will compete during a two-day convention in Berkeley.
SQUARE ONE – Alicia Huddleston at the Square One Tasting Bar, which is inside the Napa Tourist Information Center at 1331 First St., can get you a deal at a dozen tasting rooms in Napa.
For $15, Huddleston is selling a Taste of Downtown Napa pass, put out by the Downtown Napa Association, offering half price tasting fees at a dozen tasting rooms and more than 100 wines, all within walking distance.
“If you have a few days, you can split up,” visiting the tasting rooms, she said, but she added with a laugh, “If you want to get them done all in one day, that is a good ambition in life.”
For locals, buying a pass is beneficial, Huddleston said. “You go out, maybe you’re waiting for dinner reservations or maybe you’re meeting some friends in town, it’s nice (with a tasting pass) to introduce yourselves to businesses you normally wouldn’t have wandered into.” You do not need to use the card in one visit; save it for multiple Napa visits over a one-year period.
Starting with the Square One Tasting Bar, though, could take some time, since there are reds, whites, sparkling and dessert wines for tasting. A flight of four wines costs $19. Huddleston said what is offered changes daily. “We try to open at least a sparkling, two whites and two reds, but we’ll vary that, depending on circumstances,” Huddleston added.
Wines available are from Antica, Beringer, Atlas Peak, Black Stallion, Raymond, Stags’ Leap, Sterling and others.
VERMEIL WINES — If you’re a football fan, you probably know the name of Dick Vermeil, who coached the Eagles, Chiefs and won a Super Bowl with the Rams. Andrew Curry, director of retail sales, was proud to tell the story of Vermeil’s family that emigrated to the United States and settled in Calistoga. They started a wine project, but then got out of the wine business in the early 1900s. Dick Vermeil, born and raised in Calistoga, rekindled the family passion for wine while he was still coaching, Curry said. After he retired in 2006, he put more effort into his wine business, opening a Calistoga tasting room. The second, in Napa, opened in 2013.
Being poured that day were a “sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, a couple of zins, a cab franc, a couple of red wine blends and several cabernet sauvignons,” Curry said. The winemaker is Thomas Brown and the 2015 vintage wines are his first. Curry’s favorite being poured: “Cabernet franc. It is soft and smooth, but big and complex. It’s a great wine.”
There are several events held in the tasting room, especially through the football season. “We try to show all the NFL games, try to show basketball and baseball games (on their big-screen TVs) on request,” Curry said.
“We get a lot of people in here,” Curry said. “It is constantly busy on the weekends. With all the new hotels being built, it is exciting to be in the downtown area right now.”
He added, “It is always fun when Coach is in town. He has friends and guests come in, we have parties here, he’s always a good guy to have in the tasting room.”
STONEHEDGE – Shahin Shahabi, president and CEO of Stonehedge, said 30 years ago, he started the business with his father. A few years ago, they purchased the Havens brand, a highly respected Napa Valley brand from Michael Havens, and over the years, they developed some other brands as well. “So basically, we are family wine producers,” Shahabi said.
Stonehedge and Havens wines on his list range from $38 to $75 and include chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, both from the Napa Valley and from elsewhere in California. Two tastings are available, seven wines for $20 or $30.
The most expensive wine at $75 is also one of Shahabi’s favorites: a 2013 Havens Cabernet Sauvignon, made from grapes grown on Spring Mountain. As he opened a bottle, he said, “Spring Mountain has the taste that comes from the dirt, something you cannot duplicate, it comes from the ground. It is just something that a lot of other wines can’t quite duplicate or come close to. The land for whatever geological reason, produces some very, very unique characteristics and (the wine is) complex and delicate.”
He added, “You know the old saying, ‘Winemakers make very, very good wine but it is only the land that makes great wine.’”