An afternoon walking tour of six St. Helena tasting rooms included Farmstead and Trujillo on the south side of town to Thornhill and Orin Swift in downtown proper.
Catherine Bugue, a St. Helena Star tasting panelist, and I acted as tourists on that spring afternoon. We made no appointments and after simple interviews, discovered what each of the tasting rooms offered. These six are presented in alphabetical order.
CLIF FAMILY — If you’re looking for something to nibble on, a delicious meal, a wine and tasting menu or a tasting flight or two or wines by the glass or bottle, either indoors or outdoors, then Clif Family is the place to go. And, if you want to help out a local nonprofit, either through one of two programs, the major “Sip and Support” or smaller “Dine and Donate” events, then this is the place as well.
Mike Anderson, tasting room manager, said the Clif Family/Velo Vino tasting room has been open since 2011, although the owners, Gary Erickson and Kit Larson, have been making wines since 2004.
“We have multiple experiences for folks to jump right into,” he said in a private tasting room that included a large table with a gorgeous wooden top. “We have two different menus that we feature each day, our wine and tasting menu and the other our menu for the food truck (Clif Family Bruschetteria), which parks on Vidovich Avenue, right outside our tasting room.
“Depending on what a guest is looking for, whether it is a bite to eat and a glass of wine, a more in-depth wine and food pairing experience or just tasting through a flight of wines, we can do any of those options,” he said.
An added benefit is a shaded outdoor patio that’s just delightful on a spring afternoon. Anderson, who has been with Clif Family for three years, said the large green food truck was launched in 2014.
Two flights of wines are crafted, the “King of the Mtn. Tasting,” which is $40 and includes the winery’s flagship red wines; or the “Yellow Jersey Tasting,” which is $25 and includes a good mix of whites and reds and is designed as an introductory tasting.
Laura Barrett is the winemaker, who came to Clif Family at the end of the 2014 vintage.
A big part of what Clif Family does is supporting the local community, when it partners with a number of organizations for its “Sip and Support” event. “It basically entails having that group be present here and we donate a portion of the proceeds, both from the food truck and the tasting room, from that day’s sales to the organizations,” Anderson said.
In the past, those groups have included the St. Helena Little League, the St. Helena food bank, Napa County Land Trust and others.
FARMSTEAD LONG MEADOW RANCH — Of the six wine tasting rooms we visited, Farmstead Long Meadow Ranch and Clif Family have been established the longest, seven years for both. They are roughly across from each other, along with newcomer Trujillo Wines, on Highway 29.
Farmstead LMR is more than just a tasting room: It is a complex made up of a farm-to-table restaurant, café, general store (located in the historic Logan-Ives house, built in 1874) and on many summer weekends, it is the place to go for live music.
Lisa Julius, General Store manager, served up a 2015 Long Meadow Ranch Sauvignon blanc made from grapes grown on LMR’s Rutherford estate, where they grow 200 varietals of organic fruits and vegetables, sold at the St. Helena Farmers’ Market from May through October.
The General Store showcases a lot of homemade goods, including a tomato puree, a new barbecue sauce, a Bloody Mary mix and jams and jellies. It also is where customers can taste wine, whiskey or enjoy an olive oil flight. The olive oil comes from olives grown and pressed on the Long Meadow Ranch winery. On that site, located up in the Mayacamas Mountains, is an olive tree that is 100 years old, and according to Samantha Klee, tasting room sales associate, the tree has no genetic match anywhere in the world. “We got it tested at UC Davis and in Spain and we found no match,” she said.
A flight of four wines, out of seven offered, is $25. Wines range from a 2015 sauvignon blanc to a 2013 merlot and a 2013 cabernet sauvignon. Also offered is a library wine flight, including cabernet sauvignons from 2004, 2006 and 2008 and a 2012 petite sirah from Rutherford. Cost is $40.
A tasting of three olive oils is $5.
Owners Ted and Laddie Hall have three distinct properties, 650 acres that make up Long Meadow Ranch Winery, their Rutherford farm property and the Farmstead LMR property at 738 Main St. Klee said different events are held throughout the property, including weddings and a chef’s table, four or five-course meal, paired with LMR wines, where the chef comes out after each course and explains the meal.
ORIN SWIFT — Orin Swift has made a name for itself as a brand, and we expect that visitors will see that name above the Main Street doorway and just have to stop in for a taste. Expect chic minimalism at this Manhattan-like bar with each wall of its long, narrow physique made from a different natural element: stone, wood lathe, and metal.
Rob Birney, who has been with Orin Swift for three years, greeted us at the tasting bar and provided some background on the space and the wines. The tasting room had a soft opening in June 2013, followed by a more formal opening that fall.
Can’t decide which tasting menu to select? The Orin Swift team thought that might be the case, and allows for visitors to call heads or tails — which are actually the names of the two main tasting menus. Whether you end up with Heads or Tails, each provides three tastes for $10.
The wines on each of the flights include chardonnay, a grenache blend, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah blend and a Bordeaux blend. Depending on the wine, they were made with grapes grown in the Napa Valley or throughout California.
The third flight, The Finite Few, includes a taste of four wines for $20 and includes a Napa Valley sauvignon blanc, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and two California wines, a grenache and a pinot noir.
What exciting things can we expect from the Orin Swift tasting room going forward? Here, and only here, they will be making special tasting room-only and wine club-only wines available to visitors.
THORN HILL — For the past two years, Thorn Hill Vineyards has had a tasting room in downtown St. Helena and Scott Turnnidge has been manager since November. It also serves its wines at Napa’s Silenus Winery, at its large winery and tasting room on Highway 29 in Lake County and in Lancaster, Penn., which is the home of winemaker Amy Thorn and her husband, Jack.
In St. Helena, the tasting room also serves wines from Frisson Wines, owned by Terry and Pam Davis. A signature wine tasting costs $20 and includes six wines, three from each label and two from the 2012 vintage and four from the 2013 vintage. The 2012s include two Frisson cabernets, one from Diamond Mountain, the other from Georges III. The four 2013s are Frisson Dutton Ranch Chardonnay from Sonoma, Thorn Hill Pinot Noir from Napa Valley, Thorn Three Sisters Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and Thorn Hill Old Vine Zinfandel from Red Hills in Lake County.
Wines also are available by the glass, from $6 to $20 for Frisson and $8 to $14 for Thorn Hill wines and by the bottle. Also available are a charcuterie and cheese plate, a wine and chocolate pairing and a dessert wine tasting paired with an Italian biscotti.
Turnnidge said the nice thing about the tasting room is that you don’t need an appointment, since it is located within the city limits. “For most wineries, built since 1990, you need an appointment. But here you can walk in and taste our wines, although, if I’m super busy, I may ask you to come back in 15 minutes,” he said.
TRUJILLO — Walk into the Trujillo tasting room and you will see a rustic room filled with weathered wood, large green plants and plenty of tables. It’s a nice homey space, said Stephanie Bueno, sales associate, who added the room was designed by Terry, the wife of winemaker Michael Trujillo. In designing the room, she sought to get people to sit down “and we sit down with them, get to know them, talk to them, engage with them and the wines,” Bueno said.
Trujillo Wines was established in 2012, although Michael Trujillo has been making wine for years, first with Sequoia Grove and then with Karl Lawrence from 1991 to 2012. The tasting room opened in March 2016 and at first the traffic in front of the storefront was pretty hectic, because of the construction on Main Street.
Now, though, the road surface is smooth and nice and Bueno said people are coming in and are more than welcome to park in the back — with its big parking lot — and walk to the other tasting rooms downtown. Busiest days are Fridays and Saturdays.
A tasting flight of four wines is $25; if you want to taste the two red wines or a white cuvee and a rose, cost is $15 for each of the two wines. Current wines being poured include a 2016 Madelynne White Wine Cuvee, 2016 Madelynne Rose, 2014 Trujillo-Madelynne Red and the winery’s flagship, 2014 Trujillo Cabernet Sauvignon. Both red wines are made with grapes grown in the Napa Valley.
Following the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, Trujillo Wines won a gold medal for its 2014 cabernet sauvignon from Rutherford and two silver medals, one for its 2013 Madelynne Red Wine Cuvee from Howell Mountain, and the second for its 2015 Madelynne Rose from Russian River.
YAO FAMILY WINES — If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve heard of Chinese superstar, Yao Ming, who retired from the Houston Rockets in 2011. He owns a wine brand, Yao Family Wines, and they are poured at his tasting room in St. Helena, adjacent to Gott’s Roadside Café.
Anna Egan, marketing coordinator, said the tasting room is “very relaxed” and the tasting room is a place where “you can pick a corner and sip your wine, not have any pressure, just enjoy the sights, each other and the experience.”
Three tasting flights are offered, for $35 (current wines), $50 (reserve wines), and $80 for library wines. The last two include the option of a cheese and charcuterie tray. Additionally four wines, from 2015 Napa Crest Sauvignon Blanc to 2013 Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon are available by the ounce, for $3 to $15; the glass from $10 to $60; and the bottle from $32 to $225.
Egan said the library flight is for customers who want to enjoy older vintages and the “best of the best.” It includes a vertical tasting of Yao Ming Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010, 2011 and 2012. She mentions the 2010 is a 98-point wine. Winemaker for these wines is Tom Hinde and grapes are sourced from St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville.
The busiest days are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and Egan sums up the tasting room as “a nice location to visit” either before or after lunch.
Editor’s Note: Catherine Bugue contributed to this article.