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Randale and MaryLee Johnson

Randale and MaryLee Johnson own Calafia Cellars. Submitted photo

You can’t pop a Champagne cork in the Napa Valley without it landing near some incredibly good wine. Many of these gems are found along the wine country’s main roads — the Silverado Trail and Highway 29. But for the lucky few who venture off the beaten path, there are real treasures to be found on the “other side of the tracks.”

A case in point — St. Helena’s Fulton Lane. It’s a quaint, unpretentious, rural stretch of road that’s a few hundred yards east of the shops, restaurants and galleries on bustling Highway 29, and separated from the noise and haste by the tracks of the Napa Valley Wine Train. Fulton Lane is where you can find some of the valley’s best small-lot wines, and the unique personalities behind them.

The accidental winemaker

When Randle Johnson graduated from college, he had no intention of making wine. Now, nearly 40 vintages later, he’s obsessed with it.

When he’s not making wine for one of the most well-regarded large wineries in Napa Valley, Johnson makes wine on a more personal scale for the loyal following that has discovered Calafia Cellars.

Johnson’s reputation as a consummate winemaker began as a bit of a fluke. Entering UC Davis in the late 1960s, his goal was a career in the medical profession. That led to countless courses in the hard sciences, and to two degrees — one in science, the other in psychology.

After graduating, and feeling he needed a break from academia, Johnson took a job that required him to travel throughout Northern California, including its wine country. He became fascinated with the way the vineyards looked, and the way they grew.

Returning to UC Davis, he talked with his graduate school adviser, who suggested Johnson enroll in the school’s viticulture program, which at the time was lacking students. After being pursued by his adviser for several months, Johnson took “a left turn instead of a right turn,” ending up in 1974 with a graduate degree in viticulture.

He headed straight for Napa Valley, where he took a job with a vineyard management company. But he was not destined to stay solely in the fields.

In 1975, Johnson moved to the winery side of the business, where he remains to this day. His career includes winemaking posts with Villa Mount Eden, Stags’ Leap, Mayacamas, and the Hess Collection, where he serves as founding winemaker.

While working for Mayacamas, Johnson became enamored of cabernet sauvignon that was being grown on the steep, volcanic slopes of Mount Veeder on the west side of Napa Valley. He began crushing his own grapes from that locale in 1979, and launched Calafia Cellars that same year.

In 1992, Johnson married MaryLee, who jumped headlong into the winemaking fray. Today, each of them plays a specific role at Calafia. “Randle just makes the wine,” quips MaryLee, “I do everything else.”

In Calafia Cellars’ early days, Johnson expressed his fascination with Mount Veeder fruit in about a half-dozen wines every vintage.

“I was intrigued by the differences in fruit from the west-facing and east-facing slopes of Mount Veeder,” he said. He made a cabernet, merlot and zinfandel from each side, letting the terroir express its unique identity in each wine. All were produced in very small lots.

Today, 33 years since its first vintage, Calafia Cellars has consolidated its production to just two wines: a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, based on Mount Veeder fruit, and the winery’s signature “La Reina” estate blend of cabernet, malbec, and petit verdot that all grow on the Johnsons’ property on Fulton Lane.

The winery’s production hovers at around 500 cases. For the most part, Calafia Cellars remains, as Johnson puts it, “kinda under the radar,” a treasure waiting to be discovered by those willing to venture off the beaten path.

(This article is the first in a series by Oakland-based wine enthusiast and writer Peter Nowack. In the next installment, he will write about Scott and Jana Harvey and their Scott Harvey wines. Nowack is founding partner of WEmarketwine. This article was submitted on behalf of his client.)

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