Twice a year, Madrigal Family Winery holds a crab feed for friend, fans, and staff. Vats of crabs, potatoes, corn, prawns, artichokes and sausages are poured onto plastic covered picnic tables inside the winery. No silverware: you eat with your hands. Dessert is It’s-It ice cream bars. There are glasses, however, for the Madrigal wines.
Chris Madrigal, the founder and president of the winery, explained, “When I first wanted to have a party — for everyone — I noticed that people still stayed standing in their groups: tasting room staff, cellar workers, vineyard workers. But not this way: everyone sits together, and, I think they have a pretty good time.”
This is the style of Madrigal, who founded the winery in Calistoga in 1994. The roots of Madrigal, however, run far deeper.
The story of the Madrigal family in the Napa Valley begins in 1938 when Jacinto Madrigal arrived from Mexico to work in the harvests of the pears, walnuts, apples — and grapes. He settled in the northern end of the valley, with his wife Luisa. Their son, Jess, worked in vineyards, too, and 1974, had moved into wine grapegrowing, and launched his own vineyard management company. Today the company farms 800 acres of vineyards.
Chris Madrigal, son of Jess, regales guests at his crab feeds and other events with tales of the Calistoga where he grew up: a place of geysers, hot springs, the glider port, “and Homer Wright’s general store where his Grandfather Jacinto could run up a tab all year, then pay it off after harvest.”
Although some of the old places are gone, and luxurious resorts like Solage have appeared, Chris says the small town spirit of Calistoga remains. “Calistoga has grown a lot since we first got here, but what my grandfather and father found and loved is still here today.”
Chris was the one to make the move into wine-making in the 1990s, when he had opportunity arose to purchase some Duckhorn vineyards the Madrigals had been managing. He purchased land between Calistoga and St. Helena, “between Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain,” in 1994 and began building the winery.
In 1995, the Madrigals released their first wine, a petite sirah, which remains their flagship wine. Today the Madrigal Family Winery makes just under 10,000 cases of wines that also include tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel, working with consulting winemaker Ed Sbragia.
“I suppose I could make more,” he reflected, “but I like to enjoy life.”
His wife, also Chris, joins him in hosting events, and the conversation tends to focus on families, including their three children, Lauren, Santi and Pierce — where they are (two were studying in Europe when we talked), what sports they’re playing, what they like to eat when they come home.
“Family: food, wine, travel, good times — that’s what life’s about,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”
The winery and tasting room, on St. Helena Highway reflects that appreciation of home and family too. The staff is friendly, refreshingly unpretentious — possibly one of the reasons the California Wine Advisory named it one of “the top 10 wineries for Napa insiders.”
Kurt Beranis, who has been working in the tasting room for two years, introduced the Madrigal reserve estate cab Las Vinas del Senor (wine of the gods) this way: “This comes from the vineyard that Chris’ father doesn’t let him touch.”
He explained: Jess Madrigal, now in his 80s, still is out in the family vineyards, and until the grapes for Las Vinas del Senor arrive at the winery during harvest, the older Madrigal oversees every aspect of this special vineyard.
“There is something great about working with your dad, who’s been building a business personally for years,” Chris said, noting that his father’s “hard work can be found and seen in every corner.”
He also pays tribute to the family heritage with Nuestra Sangre (our blood), a full-bodied red blend.
For all his love of his Calistoga roots, Chris Madrigal doesn’t hesitate to venture out of the territory. In addition to his penchant for travel, he’s also opened a Madrigal tasting room and art gallery in Sausalito, a city, he said, he “has always loved.”
“For folks who are not able to get up to wine country, it’s nice for them to have a glass of wine from a very traditional producer, one that has been here for three generations,” he said. “Although we are a tasting room, we have real vineyards and a real winery not too far away. Also, our selections, several rather unique such as our petite sirah and our tempranillo, as well as our Cabernet and our Zinfandel, offer visitors a great mix and show well what the region has to offer.”
For now, however, harvest is keeping him close to home. “You can never predict harvest,” he said. “What started as an early harvest is [this year] actually a later than normal one.”
After a lifetime in vineyards, he concluded, “I never ceased to be surprised when it comes to harvest in Calistoga.”