Bravante Vineyards — a little gem that’s worth the drive
Visiting Bravante Vineyards in Angwin requires a sidetrack from Highway 128, but it’s a relaxing scenic drive resulting in a little gem of a winery in more ways than one. A tasting visit requires an appointment, as is the case in many Napa Valley wineries, and if you’re lucky, that appointment will be with Hospitality Manager Dave Mosher.
Mosher is an added bonus to a selection of wines that are shut-up-and-take-my-credit-card worthy. He is a virtual human wellspring of information, not just on the wines offered at Bravante, but on the wine industry itself. With more than 25 years in the wine hospitality business, Mosher’s background includes 14 years at Grgich Hills, five at Merryvale Vineyards and the last six at Bravante. His knowledge of the wine industry is encyclopedic. Here are just a few tidbits I learned at our most recent visit:
~ Of California wine, only four percent comes from the Napa Valley and only four percent from the Sonoma Valley.
~ Half of all the wine purchased in the United States costs $5 or less per bottle.
~ Wine is recession-proof; it is “like an undertaker — everyone needs it at some point no matter where the economy comes or goes, people will consume it.”
~ The purpose of a cork is aging: “Wine is a living thing.”
~ “Oxygen gives wine life, and oxygen is what kills wine.”
~ Wine needs five years from its vintage date before you can really appreciate it, but that doesn’t apply to wine you can buy at Safeway: “Everything at Safeway is ready to drink right now.”
~ “Champagne is yeast farts that are still in the bottle.”
Mosher is also astute at analyzing his visitors’ wine expertise, or lack thereof, and doesn’t just dish out the same old nuggets for everyone. He adapts his information to match up with his visitors. Every visit is a unique, educational experience — with wine.
“Every couple that comes in gets a different story,” he says, noting that he will quiz visitors to learn about their preferences and experience, adding that a great learning experience relies upon the teacher’s ability to “hit the level of their students.”
“I find your level and I try and take you up a couple of pegs.”
Now, don’t think that a tasting visit with Mosher is all classroom and seriousness, even if you do a more detailed sit-down style tasting at the table. Mosher is as entertaining and engaging as he is educational.
“To be successful at this, you have to make friends,” he says, but adds that all the facts and fun in the world won’t matter if the wine isn’t any good.
“The number one thing is what’s in the bottle. It’s the absolute most important thing.”
While Mosher offers a panoramic view of the wine industry, and the hilltop upon which Bravante Vineyards sits also offers a panoramic view of a gorgeous little pine valley. Located in the Howell Mountain appellation, the area is at the north end of the Napa Valley, almost to Lake County.
The Howell Mountain area includes several microclimates at an elevation of 1,400 feet and up, where the coastal fog rolls in at night, creating warmer nights and cooler days than the valley floor. The area gets twice the rainfall of the valley floor and has rocky, porous soil. Working together, the altitude, rainfall, temperature and soil affect both the grapes and the wine that comes from them.
Bravante Vineyards sits at 1,600 feet, and spreads over 14 acres. Owners George and Nancy Bravante, both with backgrounds in agriculture, purchased the property 20 years ago and planted wine grapes. Before building the winery buildings, they dug caves into the hillside for aging their wine. The winery produces 1,500 cases per year, all from grapes grown on the property, and their wonderful winemaker (magic-maker!) is Duane Dappen, who holds an enology degree from UC Davis.
Their philosophy is simple: “Built on family and friends, Bravante Vineyards maintains a ‘quality over quantity’ approach in order to preserve the integrity of the land. Bravante Vineyards is committed to bottling perfectly balanced wines that offer true expressions of all that Howell Mountain fruit has to offer.”
On their website, the Bravantes emphasize that they work with the environment, soil and climate to produce their luscious product: “Our farming and wine-making techniques are rooted in quality and attention to detail. The combination of volcanic ash and gravelly loam creates a sparse, well-drained soil that allows for us to achieve a crop of superior, concentrated fruit in smaller quantities. Additionally, the unique micro-climate of Howell Mountain creates a more stable growing season compared to that of the valley floor.”
Alright, already, enough about Dave and dirt, what about the wine!
Bravante wines are simply this: Amazing.
Our tasting flight, featuring their 2009 vintages, included their Sauvignon Blanc, with notes of apple, pear and vanilla. This varietal is only slightly oaked, which keeps the flavors crisp and clear. Sauvignon Blanc is usually the first taste at Bravante, and makes your mouth go “Wow!” right from the start. And, it only keeps getting better.
Bravante’s Merlot is a quantum leap above typical Merlots, which although soft and velvety are also often bland and boring: Meh-lot. Bravante Vineyards prompted me to reevaluate my prejudice. Their Merlot is a wonderful surprise, with distinct hints of boysenberry. If you avoid Merlots because they just don’t have enough zip, Bravante’s Merlot will change your mind too. It’s yummy.
Mosher attributes their Merlot’s more complex and satisfying taste to the grapes and the terrain.
“A lot of it has to do with the grapes growing on Howell Mountain. A smaller more concentrated grape lends it self to fuller, more aggressive wine in the glass. Small grapes concentrate the flavor.”
As for food pairings, Mosher notes, however, Merlot has its limits.
“If you have a big beef dinner… break out the Cabernet! With other dishes — lamb, chicken or turkey — let Merlot be the wine of choice.”
Another varietal that will change your mind is Bravante’s Rosé of Merlot, amongst the recent increase of pink varietals that are proving that pink doesn’t stink! Years back, White Zinfandel gave pink wine a bad name, but many winemakers are creating varietals that have less sugar and more tartness, and are definitely worth a try. Bravante’s Rosé of Merlot had just a hint of watermelon, and would be perfection for an evening on the patio with friends.
This brings us to the Cabernet Sauvignon. How fantastic is it? My husband bought half a case. And it’s not really “budget” priced. It’s that good. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the Napa Valley’s tried and true shining stars. In my humble opinion, it is hard to beat a Napa Cab. Of those Napa Cabs, Bravante gets a gold star, with its hints of plum and berries, and ever-so-delicate tobacco.
This is wine worth saving and savoring — rich and elegant for special gatherings and holidays, and a perfect special gift. It’s also a wine you might want to let age a bit before opening to experience it at its peak, and probably not the wine you bust out for burgers or barbecue. Hold off for filet mignon, wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with gorgonzola. (I have to fan myself just thinking about that pairing.)
Although my husband had his socks knocked off by Bravante’s Cab, my favorite was “Trio” — a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. This would be Goldilocks’ favorite too — not too big like a Cabernet, not too soft like a Merlot, it’s just right. Me, I would have gone home with a whole case of Trio, but my husband had the credit card, so I was vetoed. (He really loves that Cab.)
Trio has the black cherry and berry hints that I just love, the tart, crisp tannins are just right, the mouth feel is just right, everything about this wine is just right. Trio just may be one of my favorite Reds of all time. Will it be yours? You’ll have to take a trip up Highway 128 and turn right at Pope Valley to find out. Needless to say, you can’t find Bravante wines at Safeway.
About that back roads drive, Mosher is a huge fan of the Highway 128 entrance.
“Absolutely. It’s the only way to go,” he says.
A UC Davis graduate with a degree in geology, Mosher has many friends in Yolo County and comes back to visit frequently. He says the drive is a breeze, it’s “quite pretty,” and when leaving rural Davis on the western side of the county, “I’m at our gate in an hour and a half.”
As a comparison, he adds, that if he left the winery for Davis around 3 p.m., when the Napa Valley wine-tasting traffic is thick, it would take him an hour just to get to Jamieson Canyon Road (the Highway 12 cutoff between Interstate 80 and Highway 29), which is barely a third of the way. Why? Traffic. Period. It’s also a longer route. And, what do you get after you exit Jamieson Canyon Road? Interstate 80, with traffic congestion that’s always a roll of the dice. You might get there quicker, but you’ll more likely spend twice as much time in the car than if you’d chosen the Highway 128 route. Why gamble with your wine-tasting time?
“I hate 80,” says Mosher. “I avoid it like the plague.”
So, you can roll the traffic dice and visit Bravante the traditional way, or take the Eastern Gateway to the Napa Valley and enjoy the ride. Either way, taking the trip to Bravante Winery is well worth your time.
The tasting fee of $35 per person features five wines, as well as a walking tour of the property. Estate reserve and library wines may be purchased by the glass. Bravante Winery also offers Cabernet Franc, Simpatico (Meritage) and its jewel, the Estate Reserve Red. All wines are estate grown.
Tasting room hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., by appointment. The address is 300 Stone Ridge Road, Angwin, CA 94508, and the phone number is (707) 965-2552.