Winters is the eastern gateway to the Napa Valley
What comes to mind when you think about going wine tasting in the Napa Valley? Gorgeous, sprawling vineyards, stately mansions and luscious Cabernet swirling in your glass? Or is it an endless grinding chain of red tail lights ahead as you try to inch your way up Highway 29 in hopes of visiting at least one winery before it’s time to turn around and inch your way home?
More than likely, it’s the latter. And it’s enough to make you bypass Napa Valley entirely in favor of the Sonoma Valley or better yet, just buy a bottle of BV and stay home, particularly with the Jamieson Canyon Road cutoff under construction. And yet… you still miss the adventure of just setting out to the Napa Valley and discovering new favorite spots by chance and serendipity.
But not enough to brave the traffic.
Good news: There’s no longer any reason to hide in your backyard to avoid being stuck on the slow-moving Highway 29 conveyor belt. There’s an easy, traffic-free side door: Highway 128 — the eastern entrance to the Napa Valley.
Unless you’re already in the Bay Area, there’s no reason to fight the Highway 101 traffic (which is just a prelude to what’s yet to come on Highway 29) to get to the wine country. If you aren’t in the Bay Area and are coming from somewhere else, it’s time for a paradigm shift about how to get to the Napa Valley.
Wine lovers coming from the east and the Sacramento area have a straight shot to the Napa Valley on Highway 128. Those visiting the wine country from out of state could save themselves a lot of aggravation by flying into Sacramento rather than San Francisco, and beginning their experience staying in Winters, which is a mere 40 minutes from Sacramento International. Contrast that with a traffic jam leaving the San Francisco airport on Highway 101. You’ll be lucky if you can make it to the I-80 interchange in 40 minutes.
If you’re already in Winters and beginning your wine tasting adventure along Highway 128 here, in 40 minutes you’d already be tasting some Zinfandel in the Nichelini Family Winery tasting room, and that 40 drive will be through rolling green hills and an expanse of blue sky rather than staring at diesel exhaust emanating from the tailpipe of the tour bus you’ve been stuck behind for half an hour on Highway 29. This is what Google Maps doesn’t tell you: the difference in mileage from, say, Rutherford to San Francisco International vs. Sacramento International is roughly the same, and Google says the drive from San Francisco is about 20 minutes less. But that’s if there’s no traffic delay. That’s a huge “if.“
If, however, you begin your day in Winters, the time you spent staring at the luggage carousel at the airport could have been spent enjoying breakfast at Putah Creek Café. Don’t break your wine-loving heart. Get a room at the Abbey House Inn, and begin your wine tasting adventure down Highway 128 in Winters — the new gateway to the Napa Valley.
The Sage Canyon Loop
For the first in this series of Winters wine trail adventures, a trip down what I’ve labeled the Sage Canyon Loop, I was joined by fellow writers Jesse Loren and Spring Warren. We met for breakfast at Putah Creek Café, and I broke my familiar habits and ordered Jenny’s Scramble (I’ve been in Dave’s Vegetarian omelet rut for years). It was perfect for a day of wine-tasting and travel. Not too light, not too heavy. Goldilocks would approve.
We headed west on Highway 128 at 11:30 a.m., and pulled in to Nichelini Family Winery at 12:06 p.m., with no particular effort made to drive any faster than an average grandma. With three women yacking all the way, it seemed more like 15 minutes. Because it was a Thursday, and wintertime, I’d called ahead to make sure the winery would be open (this is good advice to heed on a weekday and off-season), and we were met by Linda Vernon, the tasting room manager.
Lovely Linda shared not only tastes of Nichelini’s amazing Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel, but the fascinating history of this winery, established by Anton Nichelini. Nichelini homesteaded the property in 1884 and founded the winery in 1890, making it the oldest continuously family-operated winery in the Napa Valley. Third, fourth and fifth generation Nichelini descendants still run the winery, and at least one Nichelini family member can most always be found in the tasting room during regular business hours, which are Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visits outside those hours are by appointment, and through sheer serendipity, we discovered that wine-tasting by appointment is a truly lovely, relaxing experience. Most wineries on Sage Canyon Road/Highway 128 require appointments due to restrictions imposed on new wineries by Napa County about 20 years ago. Only the older wineries, like Nichelini, are allowed to have open hours to the public, with no appointment required.
This was a bit of a surprise and luckily, we already had a 3 p.m. appointment further down the road, so we asked for Vernon’s advice. Not only did she have recommendations on where to stop in between, she picked up the phone and called our next stop on the spot, and although they were booked, they juggled the schedule and managed to fit us in.
This gave us plenty of time to chat with Linda, and see the Nichelini grounds, which include the historic home that houses the tasting room, picnic grounds, a bocce court and the original family cabin, which has been relocated just above the bocce court. Most impressive of all, however, is the underground wine cellar, with towering stacks of wine barrels, fermenting future luscious treats. In warmer weather, wine tasting is done right there on the shady, stone courtyard in front of the cellar, in full view of an amazing, massive Roman lever press — the original press used when Anton Nichelini started making wine, and only one of two known such presses left in the entire country.
I shared with Linda that Nichelini (a longtime favorite of mine) was the first stop in the first story of a series of stories about Winters as the eastern entrance to the Napa Valley, and she agreed that Highway 128 is the way to do it and confirmed that the Sacramento airport is much less problematic than San Francisco.
“If you want Napa as your sole destination, Sacramento is the way to go,” she said of visitors coming from out of state.
Before we knew it, we were enjoying ourselves so much that an hour and a half had slipped by, and surrounded by cool wooded hills, sipping wines that make your taste buds swoon, it would’ve been easy to begin and end the day at Nichelini. Spring commented that she’d love to just sit on the porch overlooking the grounds and sip wine, and when we return, that’s exactly what we’ll do. But this day, it was time to continue on our journey down the Sage Canyon Loop. (One note about visiting Nichelini — perched as it is on the edge of the highway, when coming from the east, pay particular attention to the road sign that says the winery is 400 feet ahead. Across the road, to the left of that sign, is a parking lot, which comes in handy if the choice parking spot across from the winery is taken. Miss it? No worries. There’s a turnout a few hundred feet past the winery on the right to turn around.)
Less than 10 minutes west of Nichelini on Highway 128 is a small, sweet secret called Neyers Vineyards. With a modest road sign not much larger than a real estate sign, unless you knew to look for it, you’d drive right by and never notice it at all. Just another country driveway, right? Wrong. That country driveway winds down over a wooden bridge and back up to an olive-tree lined driveway leading to a rustic and relaxed tasting room that features a small, intimate indoor room and an open air patio overlooking a tiny creek and a stretch of oak-tree dotted hillside.
We were welcomed by Tiffany Buchanan, one of the tasting room staff, who guided us to a wooden picnic table on the patio, and proceeded to introduce us to their lovely Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah and Zinfandel and Grenache, as well as their unique blends: Rhone Blend Sage Canyon Red — perfect for “pizza, pasta and easy drinking” noted Tiffany (I had to take one home), and Mourvèdre.
My companions and I were all a little blown away by our experience at Neyers. Here was this sweetheart of a young lady, lavishing us with attention, in an atmosphere that made us feel as if we had the entire place to ourselves. In essence, we did, as Tiffany explained that this is the only way one can experience wine tasting there: by appointment, in parties of six or less. Tiffany called this experience “off the grid.” You’re away from crowds, and you have to know about Neyers in order to find it.
The tastings are done in a relaxed, sit-down style, and visitors have the complete attention of their host or hostess. This allows time to ask lots of questions, and discover all sorts of delightful things, such as the fact that some of the varietals are organically grown, that Neyers presses its own olive oil from the very trees lining the driveway, and why their Chardonnay has just the right amount of butter.
“It’s creamy, rather than butter. I equate it to popcorn,” said Tiffany, noting that movie theatre popcorn is drenched in butter but air-popped popcorn can be lightly drizzled.
Although we were new to Neyers, Tiffany was not new to the eastern gateway. She told us whenever she drives to Sacramento to visit relatives, she takes Highway 128 rather than the I-80 route to get there.
“I think the drive is gorgeous, and it takes a little less time,” she says, adding that when people are coming from the Sacramento area, “I suggest they come through Winters when coming to see us. There’s no reason to go down into Napa and come back into the valley. It takes longer, frankly.”
“The time you spend driving, you could have been tasting,” noted Jesse as she swirled some Mourvèdre in her glass.
Although it was relaxing and lovely, it was again time to move on. As we drove through the hillsides and past sparkling Lake Hennesey, ducks floating on the glittering water, Spring Warren (who writes about gardening and growing) said she was particularly impressed with the overall vibe at Neyers.
“I really like the feel of this place. They paid attention to the environment. It feels like somebody really loves the whole process. The wine was incredible, and every part of the experience fit together. Everything came together in this really organic way.”
Our prearranged 3 p.m. appointment was at Midsummer Cellars. Why? I just liked the name. It sounded earthy and magical, and besides, when I called, the voice at the other end of the line sounded gentle and kind. Kudos to my intuition, this stop along Sage Canyon Road was a gem. Just like the entrance to Neyers, Midsummer Cellars is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot. And if you do, you’ll be missing out.
Right there at the gate, a lovely, unimposing gentleman named Rollie Heitz (a name that is royalty in the Napa Valley) greeted us with an almost shy smile. We parked and he led us around the corner of the tiny wine cellar, and we all simultaneously gasped in delight as we saw the lovely little table he’d set for us, complete with bright green and lavender tablecloth and sparkling, ample wine glasses. Just beyond was a field of delicate yellow mustard flower and olive trees, with hills dusky blue in the late afternoon, and before tasting anything we had one collective exhale and settled into the chairs to chat.
What a treat, to just sit and ask Rollie about how he makes his wine, and how he came to own this darling, petite winery.
“I grew up in the business, and I had to have something to do,” he said, noting that his family business is none other than the renowned Heitz Cellars, located in St. Helena. It’s no wonder that Rollie’s Cabernets are so very luscious. The family business bar is set very high.
The first taste treat was a barrel tasting of Rollie’s Cañon Creek Cabernet, and later on the 2011 vintage of the same as we returned to our private little picnic table. We were all delighted to discover that Rollie was quite familiar with Winters, and revealed that he purchases some of his grapes from the Turkovich ranch for his Grenache. He also told us about the inspiration for the winery’s name, which came from a midsummer spent in Sweden with friends, and explained that his label logo featured “revelers dancing around a midsummer pole.”
Although most Napa Valley wineries charge a tasting fee, with reimbursement upon purchase. Rollie doesn’t charge anything, even for a private, relaxed tasting with the winemaker himself.
“I really don’t like the idea of charging people to taste the wine. I’m hoping they’ll buy it.”
He didn’t have to hope too hard. Both Spring and I were so seduced by the 2009 Cañon Creek Cabernet, neither of us could leave without one.
We asked his opinion about the “eastern gateway” concept, and Rollie gave it two thumbs up.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said, adding, “You also get the Bay Area traffic if you come through on Interstate 80. There could be a ball game.”
Before parting, Rollie advised us on where to make our last stop. I’d intended to head to Clos du Val, just to have one mainstream winery on our mini-trip, but Rollie said if we had only one stop left to make, it should be Piña. Based on our thoroughly wonderful visit, we followed his advice. It was unfortunate that time was starting to run out, because we were so thoroughly comfortable, sitting there in the warm sunshine with Rollie and his wonderful wine, we could easily have spent the rest of the evening there.
As we turned south onto the Silvarado Trail, which is the bottom of my Sage Canyon Loop, Spring commented that she liked this “appointment-style“ wine tasting experience because it feels more like having a relationship with the winemakers and tasting room staff than just dropping in as customers.
Liked Piña a lotta
It was 4:04 p.m. when we pulled up to Piña Napa Valley and Dave Lagland, who was working the tasting room that day, had a good chuckle over the three gals who were frantically searching for the reporter’s lost notebook that finally turned up at the bottom of her oversized purse.
Like Linda Vernon at Nichelini, Dave (who jokingly calls himself a “wine educator” rather than a tasting room employee because it “sounds very fancy”) shared a wealth of knowledge about the Piña winery, which is also family owned and got its start with the Piña brothers in 1960. The cozy winery is the site of paella parties in the fall, and because it was established before the county’s “appointment” rules, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, making it a failsafe stop if you have gaps in your itinerary.
An interesting note about Piña Napa Valley is that the winemaker is a woman: Anna Monticelli, who has been crafting their truly excellent varietals since 2007.
We sampled Piña’s Cahoots Cabernet and fell in love with the 2008 Cabernet from the Wolff Vineyard in Yountville. Having purchased only reds that day, I took home their bright, crisp Chardonnay. Jesse was taken by a special little treat Dave poured, a late-harvest Chardonnay, rich and honey-sweet that she planned to share with her husband.
Dave noted how we were enjoying these taste treats so thoroughly, and shared a little tidbit with us. Women, he said, have 22 extra taste receptors than men. That explains why women will often taste cherry, raspberry or blueberry in wine, while men might just taste “red”.
Although we were enjoying our visit at Piña, the clock struck 5, and given that Dave had already cheerfully stayed an hour after school to visit with us, we really didn’t want to outstay our welcome. We thanked him and headed back to the car, and home.
Rounding the loop
I took the long way home, continuing south on the Silvarado Trail, and then caught Highway 121 east back to Winters, so I could take note about where the Jarvis winery is for our next trip, a Reverse Sage Canyon Loop, and also simply because I’d never taken that road before. Highway 121 is quite twisty, but we took our time and chatted about our day. We cruised back into Winters just after 6 p.m, as the setting sun turned the sky over downtown Main Street a warm, rosy pink, and finished the day at Ficelle, where a spicy, savory little crock of “Gurullos” (pork, peppers, garbanzos and orzo in a tomato-saffron broth) was the perfect end to a perfect day.
According to the odometer, we traveled 54 miles round trip and never got stuck in a chain of taillights once. Although we left the Napa Valley at the peak of rush hour, we were back home in one hour. If we’d tried that from the top of Highway 29, we’d still be sitting in the Jamieson Canyon Road bottleneck instead of dipping bread into ajo at Ficelle. The eastern entrance to the Napa Valley is definitely the way to go.
Nichelini Family Winery, 2950 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena, CA 94574; (707) 963-0717; email@example.com; www.nicheliniwinery.com; hours, Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.