Last Saturday was the 15th annual Afternoon in the Vineyards tour hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners and the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and at Casa Nuestra Winery & Vineyards it was an excellent opportunity to visit with Cody and Gene Kirkham, to ask questions of their new winemaker Darren Chertkoff, and to learn more about this iconic family winery.

Casa Nuestra — loosely translated to “Our House” — was started in 1979 by the Kirkham family. It produces about 2,000 cases of wine each year. The winery is located north of St. Helena at 3451 Silverado Trail. The winery building is on the western side of the trail, set back from the road amid a sweep of vineyards that extends from the eastern side of the trail, across the road, and beyond a little knoll where the family house is located.

Compared to some of the massive vineyard estates that dot the valley floor, Casa Nuestra is small, compact and unique, with 22 acres planted in vines, according to Katrina Kirkham, Gene’s wife. But, considering the small acreage and limited production, Casa Nuestra produces a large number of wines. This includes meritage, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, dry chenin blanc, white Riesling, petite sirah, charbono, French colombard, Rosado, a dry rose and two proprietary red wines called Tinto Classico and Tinto St. Helena — unique wines made from a one-of-a-kind ” field blend.” All of their wines, according to co-owner Gene Kirkham, are unique, award winning and very limited.

Calling himself “the Happy Farmer,” Gene Kirkham said that when he and his family first purchased the property in 1979, he had no intention of operating a winery. However, because of the unique nature of Casa Nuestra’s vineyards and the vagaries of the wine-grape market in the 1980s, it became clear to him that it was more fun making wine than simply growing grapes.

“Initially I was pretty naïve about the business,” Kirkham said, standing beneath the shade of an oak last Saturday. “I thought I would be able to continue the grape contracts that the previous owner had negotiated. Little did I know.”

He said that he met Bob Mondavi and was able to sell his red grapes to the new Robert Mondavi Winery facility. “He was very gracious,” Kirkham recalled. “But he said he didn’t have a need for the chenin blanc.” Perhaps, Mondavi said with a wink, his brother over at Charles Krug might have a place for them. “But when I casually asked him if he might call his brother about it, he let out quite a laugh.”

That was at a time when the Mondavi brothers were not on speaking terms, since the famous lawsuit pitting Robert Mondavi against Charles Krug Winery. “That shows how naïve and new I was to the valley,” Kirkham said.

According to Kirkham, some of the vines in front of the winery date back to the early 1960s. The western-facing hillside vineyard, named La Jolla del Norte, is situated on the east side of the Silverado Trail. That 5-acre vineyard supplies Casa Nuestra’s cabernet sauvignon. It also has seven rows producing white Riesling – planted in 1966. The vineyard planted on the southern portion of Casa Nuestra’s estate, produces chenin blanc. According to the winery’s website, the 1.4 acre vineyard grows in a Roman-style, head pruned technique, planted sometime around 1961.

The vineyards on the northern portion of the estate contain 5.2 acres of merlot, planted in 1989, and 1.69 acres of cabernet franc planted in 1997. There are also 2.16 acres, planted in 1994 with the vineyard’s “Tinto St. Helena” field mix, said to include old-clone zinfandel, cabernet Pfeffer, Alicante bourschet, carignane, petite sirah, Mouvedre, refosco, Napa gamay and cabernet sauvignon.

According to new winemaker Chertkoff, they are committed to sustainable farming practices to keep the estate’s ecosystem in good health and are now managed completely through organic techniques such as composting, cover crops and even goats. Traditional basket presses, special low-impact pumps and a variety of French and American oak barrels are used to produce their wines.

Almost all of Casa Nuestra’s limited production is sold directly from the winery and through its wine club. The winery is open to club members from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and appointments are available to the public during those same hours. They are “dog friendly” and picnickers are also welcome. For information, call 963-5783.

The other wineries that participated in the annual “Afternoon in the Vineyards” include Jamieson Ranch Vineyards in American Canyon; Brown Ranch Vineyard and Boyd Family Vineyards in Napa; Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville; and Oakville’s Teaderman Vineyards.

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Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.

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