Family-owned and -operated is a phrase used loosely in Napa Valley’s wine industry. But Stewart Cellars, the latest wine tasting spot to pop up in downtown Yountville, is a literal representation of the definition.
The small operation is run by a brother-sister team, James Stewart, 36, and Caroline Stewart Guthrie, 31, with her husband, winemaker Blair Guthrie, 31. The siblings have turned what began as a hobby for their father, Michael Stewart, into a full-fledged business that distributes nationally and finally has a home.
“Most people call themselves a family winery and a family business, but none of them actually work for the company, they just collect the paycheck in the background or do marketing,” said Guthrie. “We actually all run the company and work for the company. Before the tasting room opened, it was just us three. These are our first employees.”
The tasting room is more like a small campus, consisting of three buildings—a tasting hall, a reserve library and a café—surrounding an outdoor courtyard where guests can relax, eat and taste Stewart Cellars wine.
It was a lengthy project, which began forming when James Stewart joined his father in 2005. The buildings were bought in 2009, but the Stewart Cellars wine brand was founded in 2000, when Michael Stewart sold his Texas technology company and began making cabernet with the help of Paul Hobbs, whose cabernet was a favorite of his.
“He didn’t really know how to do the wine thing, so he just started knocking on people’s doors and somebody sent him over to Paul Hobbs,” said Stewart. “Paul agreed to have lunch with him, but prior to having lunch he said he wasn’t working with anybody, and somehow, by the end of lunch, they became buddies.”
Stewart Cellars wines were first made at Paul Hobbs’ winery, and later moved over to CrossBarn Winery in Sonoma, where they’re still made today.
James Stewart initially came to be involved when he realized he didn’t have much passion for his current entertainment career, working on reality TV development for shows like Survivor and Amazing Race.
“I called my dad one day and was like, ‘Look, I need a job. I’ll do anything, just give me whatever I can do.’ And he said, ‘You can either work on an oil well in Bakersfield, or you can move to Napa Valley and help with the wine business.’ I was like, ‘I’ll take Napa,’” Stewart recalled.
His sister joined the family business in 2011, after spending several years in the wine industry. Her first harvest experience came via Hobbs, who sent her to Argentina to work at Vina Cobos on short notice.
“She came to a blending session with Paul, my father and myself, and we were doing a cab blend,” said Stewart. “We had six to seven different cabernets lined up and we hadn’t made any choices yet. Paul looks at Caroline and says, ‘Caroline, which one of these should be the blend?’ Caroline picks one, and he says, “You’re absolutely right. How would you like a job at Vino Cobos starting in two weeks?’”
When she arrived back in the U.S., she interned at CrossBarn, where she met Guthrie. The pair worked another harvest together in Australia, and then came back to the states where they were married in 2011. In 2015, Guthrie joined Stewart Cellars as winemaker.
“It’s the ultimate family affair,” said Stewart Guthrie.
Nomad is what most would call Stewart Cellars’ reserve cabernet sauvignon label, but the family wanted to give it a more personal touch. Every year, the grapes that come from what’s deemed to be the best vineyard lot are set aside for Nomad.
“It would have been a reserve, but the word ‘reserve’ is thrown around a lot and I think it’s lost some of its meaning,” said Stewart. “We wanted to come up with its own name and because we were sort of searching, Nomad made sense. Rather than being the best barrels per vintage, it’s the best vineyard, so it nomadically searches around every vintage for that particular sweet spot.”
But it just so happens that vintage after vintage, the sweet spot has been the Las Piedras Vineyard owned by Andy Beckstoffer, a partnership Stewart Cellars has had since 2005. This inspired a new idea to sign on with five additional Beckstoffer vineyards—Bourn, Dr. Crane, To Kalon, Georges III and Missouri Hopper—and release six Nomads every year, one from each. In the fall of 2018, Stewart Cellars hopes to introduce its first Nomad terroir tastings.
“Most people do vineyard designates, but they’re all different farmers that they’re getting these grapes from,” said Guthrie. “This is one farmer, one winery, one winemaker.”
By appointment, educational tastings of Nomad take place in the Nomad Heritage Library, a cozy space that feels just like a home library, with dozens of new and old books that are actually for sale. The books are selected by the family and staff, and span across genres such as art, science fiction, fashion and literary classics.
The room also features a fireplace and quirky, old-world conversation pieces, such as a saber tooth tiger skull and a taxidermy alligator.
For $85, the tasting in here includes a side-by-side sampling of two Nomad vintages and also two Stewart cabernet sauvignon vintages. The cabernet is the brand’s first wine, and most popular. It’s currently the only Stewart wine that comes from multiple vineyards, blending cabernet fruit from three Napa Valley locations.
“This is the cab that started the business,” said Stewart Guthrie. “It has a major cult following, and the philosophy behind it was to find vineyards all over Napa Valley with different microclimates, and to be able to blend them together into the quintessential Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon.”
For years, Stewart Cellars was limited to making wines that would distribute well, but the addition of a tasting room has given Guthrie, a self described “acid junky,” more room to experiment.
“They’re artists. Winemakers are artists,” said Stewart. “For a long time we kept the reins pretty tight, but now that we have a tasting room, we’re like, ‘Go experiment, go have fun.’ Part of the whole purpose of having a property like this is you can have control; you’ve got to keep it fun.”
Last year, Guthrie made a merlot for the first time, and this year, Stewart Cellars will release a rosé and their first varietal blend, a red. Until now, every wine they’ve produced has been 100 percent varietal.
These new wines, plus a pinot noir, chardonnay and two cabernets, can be sipped in the Stewart Tasting Hall, which has tall, vaulted ceilings and a large horseshoe bar. There are also a few additional seating options, including a modernized settle, a Scottish bench, which pays tribute to the family’s heritage. Visitors can also take their tasting outside to the courtyard.
Available flights are the Portfolio flight for $35 and cabernet flight for $55. Make a reservation to receive $5 off the tasting fee.
“We can’t just be a town full of French bistros and pasta. There has to be something else,” said Sarah Heller, chef at Gather Café.
It’s the building closes to the road, when entering Stewart Cellars from Washington Street.
For both locals and tourists, Heller, a Yountville resident, saw a need for a healthier and quicker food option in town. Stewart Cellars gave her the opportunity to fill that void.
“I love to eat. I love meat, potatoes, and I like pasta and all these heartier things, but you can’t eat like that every day,” she said. “And if you’re coming here and you’re not used to eating that way, by Day 3, you’re like, ‘I need a green juice and I need a salad.’ I think I just had it stuck in my head that this is going to work.”
Gather has a small, oft-changing menu of made-to-order dishes, separated into categories like “Greens” and “Grains.” Choose from three salads, like Spicy Kale Caesar ($9), or order up the daily fresh-pressed juice ($8), like beet with pear, ginger and pomegranate.
They’ve also added some heartier items, including sweet and savory Belgian waffles ($2.50), that are meant to be eaten with your hands. Local favorites include the savory prosciutto and goat cheese waffle, and the sweet pecan and brown sugar. On recent cold days, the chicken and dumplings and short rib stew—red wine braised and slow cooked—have gone in a flash.
Yountville is a familiar place for Heller, who first moved to Napa Valley from the Northeast 12 years ago to work at Bouchon, when she was 22.
“I had friends out here that worked at Bouchon and my closest friend from college was walking by the French Laundry on his way to work, and it just sounded so ideal for a young chef. The quality of life here, how passionate everyone is about food is amazing, and there’s access to such great ingredients,” she said.
“I came out to visit, went to work with him at Bouchon, and they were like, ‘We need somebody, do you want to work here?’ I went home, packed my things and came right back.”
There, she met lifelong friends and her husband, while quickly working her way up the ladder by becoming a sous chef within a year.
“That was unheard of, to move up so quickly at my age, and also, I was the first female in the entire Thomas Keller empire at the time to have been a manager in the back of the house,” said Heller. “It was something that I wanted. I pushed for it. Girls had only been shucking oysters and working garmache, making salads, and I wanted to work the fish station. I wanted to work every station.”
She then headed farther Upvalley to work with Christopher Kostow at Meadowood, but what she truly enjoyed was working as a private chef and doing small dinner parties for clients. Heller was on her own for six years until a fateful day when she was called to bring in lunch for the Stewart Cellars crew during a construction meeting.
“We finished eating it and it was so good and she said, ‘It’s all gluten-free.’ And we were like, “What?’” Stewart-Guthrie recalled. “She said that there’s all these amazing foods that you can make that are still health conscious, and we thought, we like that philosophy and you clearly know how to do it. It was a really sort of kismet meeting. She had ideas of what she wanted to do in town and it lined up with what we wanted to do.”
Those ideas revolved around a healthy, fast-casual option that didn’t yet exist in Yountville, but is popular all over the United States with chains like sweetgreen.
“I’ve seen this need for a local spot to have grab-n-go type lunch that’s nice enough because everyone here has high standards,” she said. “They don’t want to have a salad at Starbucks that’s already assembled. They want it a little more curated.”