Pops & Son 3rd Annual Wine Trip – Napa

Ehler's Estate - St. HelenaMy father and I started a new annual tradition in 2005, the year that I started at Genentech. While not an obsessive like myself, Pops is a wine-guy (kind of hard not to be while living in Napa). We decided back in ’05 that we should start taking a wine-tasting trip every year that I get the week off between Christmas and New Years. The first year we stayed in Glen Ellen and hit much of the Southern region of Sonoma Valley. Last year we stayed in Healdsburg and took care of the Northern regions.

This year we decided to make it a little cheaper and just stay at the house and go to the many places in the Napa Valley that we hadn’t hit yet. Indeed, we stayed very low-profile on Thursday, just taking a taxi downtown and hitting some of the many tasting rooms that have or are about to open up in the city of Napa. Napa Valley Opera HouseThe Napa downtown has (finally) come into its own again over the last 3-4 years, somewhat coinciding with the completion of the Napa Valley Opera House restoration. There are almost no empty storefronts any longer and there is actually some building going on and further restoration work happening in various places. The other part of the resurgence has been the proliferation of tasting rooms. The Napa Valley Register published a list of 17 tasting rooms downtown (15 are currently open already) earlier this year in August (thanks Na!) and we used that list to plan out our day. We heard later that there are supposed to be up to 10 additional tasting rooms that are to open downtown in 2008!

My mom and my sister decided to duplicate this endeavor and they were heading out the same day to Healdsburg to do a similar Northern regional tour of Sonoma. We all met up for a solid starter breakfast at the local joint that we’ve been going to for years, Emmy Lou’s. Fully satiated, we bid farewell and headed out to our respective wine regions.

Vintner's Collective (Wine Country Getaways)Once downtown, Dad and I decided to first hit up a multi-winery tasting room where I had been briefly once before with Jeffro. Vintner’s Collective is an outstanding place to start a trip in Napa. We tasted about 15 wines between the two of us from many of the 15+ wineries represented at the collective. The winery list is quite impressive and includes many rising stars within the Valley, such as Melka, Parallel, Mi Sueño and Buoncristiani. We were well taken care of by Andy and Raul, who were manning the tasting bar for the day. Housed in the beautiful Pfieffer Building, the restored ambience only helps add to the wines’ elegance. Andy and Raul were extremely capable pourers and my Dad and I had quite a few great conversations about the wines and various local going-ons. I also spoke with Andy about some new wine projects that he has up his sleeve and I’m excited to try them once they get closer to bottling. The Mi Sueño Syrah that I purchased was a favorite, as well as the Richard Perry Cab and the Buoncristiani O.P.C (who grew up down the street from me in Browns Valley).

Rocca Family Winery winesOnce we were satiated at the collective we ventured a whole half block away to the Rocca Family Vineyards tasting room. There we met Karen, who was handling the tasting and wine bar for the day. These wines were not only the stars of the day, but were some of my favorites for the entire trip! What a fantastic collection of wines. Rocca is owned by the husband and wife duo of Mary Rocca and Eric Grigsby. Their winemaker is the highly acclaimed Celia Welch Masyczek, of Silverado and Staglin fame. Rocca has been gaining its own critical and cult fame, gaining many 90+ reviews in Wine Spectator and even a star feature article in the same mag. They have also prevailed in some highly competitive wine tastings of late, both in France and in the 2004 SF Chronicle annual wine competition. All that said, it was no surprise that my father and I loved all of their wines. One discontinued backvintage that Karen was pouring that day was some of the last of the 2000 H. Gray Cab. It is almost painful how good this wine was, punctuated by the incredibly low price for such a high-quality back vintage ($29). Rocca & Grigsby must be masochists…I bought two bottles! Karen mentioned that they only had a few cases left of that wine and they were planning on selling out (so call now!). This is, essentially, their Rocca Yountville Estate Cab, but it was under a different label at the time of release. We (reluctantly) finished up our tasting in the beautifully restored building after another great conversation with Karen and decided that some coffee was next on the menu.

Napa Valley Coffee Roasting CompanyI had the expected outstanding shot of espresso at my favorite coffeehouse and roaster on Earth, Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company (we went to the one on Main in Napa). I might be a bit biased about RoCo, seeing as how I worked there all through high school (Go Crushers!) and my first year at UCD, but so be it…the espresso and coffee are incredible. We saw some friends of my dad’s there so we chatted a bit with them and allowed the coffee to counteract the vino for a little while, then set off for the last stop of the day.

Napa Wine Merchants has been a wine staple downtown for many years. They’ve recently gone through a bit of change and are now focusing more on the wines from GustavoThrace, complemented by some special boutique picks from chosen local and foreign wineries.Napa Wine Merchants Casey and Thrace, herself, were very knowledgeable about the GT wines that they were pouring (not surprisingly) and we had another great conversation exchanging local knowledge with Thrace. The winery was founded in 1996 by winemaker Gustavo Brambila (of 1976 Paris Tasting fame, working under Mike Grgich) and Thrace. One of the wines that really caught our eye (palate?) was the ’02 Signature Zinfandel, made with fruit from Nichelini Ranch in Chiles Valley. Nichelini Winery is the oldest family owned winery in the Valley and one that I’ve been going to for years while growing up in Napa and after I started becoming a wine freak. My parents have been members for years and Beth and I joined their wine club a few years back, as well. I like the fact that GT has retained a great sense of value and humor with their wines, even after 20+ years in the biz. Their 3rd Bottle red and white wines are incredible values with 100% Rutherford and Carneros fruit, respectively, in their non-vintage (NV) blends. These are the wines they’d like for you to reach for once you’ve had two bottles already…something that I can truly understand! Bidding farewell to Casey and Thrace, we caught a taxi back to the homestead in Browns Valley.

Graeser WineryThe next day, after an unexpected detour to Healdsburg overnight, Dad and I headed back over to Calistoga on the back from Sonoma on Mark West Springs Road. Our intent was to start the day at a winery that I’ve been dying to visit the last few years, Graeser Winery on Diamond Mountain. I haven’t been to this winery since I was about 7 years old! Richard Graeser, proprietor and winemaker, has made wine on this property for 22+ years. His family has owned the property for 50 years and they plan on celebrating that momentous interval with a rather large party later this year. I’m a little unsure if I can describe the property and the wines with the proper respect, but I’ll give it a fair shot. Graeser Winery picnic areaThe property sits on pine and oak wooded rolling hills, interspersed by the East-facing estate vineyards of all Bordeaux varietals. Once you turn off Petrified Forest Road and head up the private drive, you quickly feel as if you’re way off in the boonies…good stuff! The first building you see is the old estate house of Richard Beverly Cole, dating back to the 1880’s. Richard (Graeser) has been restoring this house for as long as my dad can remember and we were fortunate enough to get a tour of some of the (almost) finished rooms. The tasting room is situated in another old building on the property and this day was manned by Mr. Graeser, himself. He can actually be found on the property almost every day of the week, unless he’s back making the wine that we were soon enjoying. Tasting RoomBeth and I have been on a big Cabernet Franc kick the last few years and that single-varietal wine is one which Greaser really excels at producing. I was incredibly pleased to find that they have a large selection of back-vintage wines of many of their varietals, dating all the way back to 1990, at some very affordable prices. I decided to go the whole way back and purchased a 1990 Estate Cabernet Franc. I haven’t opened the bottle yet, so I’ll be sure to post the review once I savor that aged Franc. Estate houseI’ve never actually had a single-varietal Franc with that much age (well, I haven’t had many of ANY wines that old!) and I can’t wait to check it out. We shot the manure for quite some time with Richard until we embarked on the short house tour. My Dad and I then walked around the property a little bit more, saying hi to their two huge dogs while gathering some photos until we decided to continue our wine journey South, down 29. We waved goodbye to Richard, his wife and their grandson and headed out.

The next stop on our Viaje de Vino was St. Clement. This is another property that has a long and rich history in the Valley. Though it is now a part of Foster’s Wine Group after a series of buyouts, it still produces some great wine on their historic hilltop location. Abbott's Merlot and myself!The unfortunate part of this tasting, however, was the medium-sized tour bus that pulled up and proceeded to crowd into the small historic tasting room in their restored Victorian mansion. Dad decided to head out to the patio (which has a wonderful view of the Valley North of St. Helena) while I shuttled back and forth with each wine. The star of this tasting was the ’03 Abbott’s Vineyard Merlot, from the Carneros appellation.

Our last stop of the day was at another Napa winery that I hadn’t visited since I was old enough to have wine, Rutherford Grove Winery and Vineyards. Here we were greeted by Karen, who provided a lot of back history about the winery of which I wasn’t aware.Rutherford Grove tasting room door The winery was founded in 1993 by the Pestoni Family, who have resided and worked the land in the Valley for almost as long as it has been called the Napa Valley. We tasted 4 wines from Karen with the star wine actually from an additional wine label that they’ve released this year, the ’06 Quackenbush Mountain Vineyards Zin. This wine was doing incredibly well for being so young. It wasn’t quite wide open yet, but it did show some lovely fruit and a lot more structure that you usually get from that variety. The high altitude of the vines, ~2000′, are probably to thank for such a beautiful, claret-style wine. Their single vineyard Pet was also a welcome taste to my palate. After finishing here, both my dad and I decided that our mouths needed a break. We headed back home and then finished the day tasting with a friend of ours in the Southern part of the Valley.

Done for the day, we headed to Suppertime for a nice down-home meal of beef tenderloin and some amazing mashed potatoes. Luddite VineyardsWe needed wine for the meal, of course, so we stopped by the outstanding local market, Browns Valley Market. This market is within walking distance of where I grew up in Browns Valley and now treads the thin line between a comfy local market and a gourmet grocery destination. They have great values on the huge selection of local wines from both Napa and Sonoma. In honor of the man purchasing the dinner and the wine, we decided on a Merlot taste-off between and ’03 Stags’ Leap Winery and ’05 Luddite Vineyards. The Stags’ won my father over while I preferred the Luddite. We ended the wonderful trip with some good food, good wine, a nice fire and great movie. What a trip!

Please feel free to peruse all of the wines we had during the trip listed below. If you would like to list all of the wines together for your own winelog or to print out the list, I’ve tagged them all with “PS3rdTrip“. Enjoy!

Vintner’s Collective (WL):

2006 Gregory Graham Rolling Knolls Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

2005 JC Cellars The Imposter

2006 Ancien Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir

2004 Mi Sueño Napa Valley Syrah

2004 D Cubed Howell Mountain Zinfandel

2004 Buoncristiani Family Napa Valley O.P.C.

2005 Parallel Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2003 Richard Perry Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2004 Clark-Claudon Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Chiarello Roux Old Vine Estate Petite Sirah

2000 Showket Napa Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Rocca Family Vineyards:

2000 H. Gray Yountville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Rocca Yountville Estate Bad Boy Red

2003 Rocca Yountville Estate Syrah

2004 Rocca Yountville Estate Syrah

2003 Rocca Yountville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2004 Rocca Yountville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Wine Merchants (WL):

2005 GustavoThrace Lodi Sauvignon Blanc

2003 GustavoThrace Carneros Chardonnay

2002 GustavoThrace Napa Valley Signature Zinfandel

2003 GustavoThrace Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

NV GustavoThrace The 3rd Bottle White Table Wine

NV GustavoThrace The 3rd Bottle Red Table Wine


2006 Graeser Rebecca’s Rosé

2003 Graeser Simba’s Sinful Zinfandel

2002 Graeser Napa Valley Barrel Select Merlot

2003 Graeser Diamond Mountain District Coeur De Leon Estate

2003 Graeser Diamond Mountain District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2006 St. Clement Bale Lane Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc

2006 St. Clement Carneros Chardonnay

2003 St. Clement Napa Valley Merlot

2003 St. Clement Abbott’s Vineyard Estate Merlot

2004 St. Clement Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 St. Clement Napa Valley Oroppas

2005 Rutherford Grove Rutherford Estate Sauvignon Blanc

2006 Quackenbush Mountain Vineyards Lake County Zinfandel

2003 Rutherford Grove Rutherford Bench Estate Merlot

2004 Rutherford Grove Rutherford Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Rutherford Grove Spring Creek Vineyard Petite Sirah


NV Barefoot California Chardonnay

2005 Luddite Vineyards Coster Vineyard Merlot

2003 Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Merlot

Vinopanion: Ward Kadel - @drXeNo

View posts by Vinopanion: Ward Kadel - @drXeNo
Ward Kadel - @drXeNo is the founder of Vinopanion wine blog, former West Coast Ambassador & Staff Blogger for WineLog.net and former Le Wine Buff for Bordeaux.com (CIVB). He will try any and all wines and tends to write about the parts of his life that include wine...like virtually all of it! He and his wife grew up in Napa and Sonoma and they still live in the Napa Valley. Check out the wines he's recommended with his WKBadges. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Like #Vinopanion on Facebook. Contact him: "Ward at WineLog.net". Ward happily accepts samples but does not guarantee a review, positive or negative.


  1. […] After touring medieval Tuscany, we decided that a picnic lunch was next on the agenda and decided where we might go and eat. We finally decided on heading up to an old favorite up the road, Graeser Winery, also situated on Diamond Mountain. I first wrote about Graeser when my dad and I had such a great time there again, during our annual Pops & Son Wine Trip. There we had lunch amid the beautiful surroundings, joined by Richard Graeser’s two Great Danes . We greatly enjoyed Graeser’s ‘02 Chard and ‘02 Two Dog Merlot during our meal. […]

  2. […] OK, so I wasn’t off gift shopping for some flowers to take to the Pope, I admit it. His continent was involved, however. A few weeks back, my sister and my mom headed off into the skies towards a three week trip in London and Paris. Freed from familial ties, my Dad and I decided that it was time for another Pops & Son Wine Trip, this time in the Summer. Previous wine trips taken during my week off from the day job during the holidays have included Glen Ellen and surrounding Sonoma wineries, Healdsburg and surrounding wineries and wineries in Napa that we had yet to visit. This time we were planning on doing a hybrid of both valleys. […]

  3. […] Pops and I tasted her work at the Rocca Family Vineyards tasting room in downtown Napa during our 3rd Pops & Son Wine Trip in late 2007.  The balance and constrained power in those wines completely enthralled my nose and […]

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