Napa Valley’s Chappellet has a diverse portfolio that delivers quality

Next year will mark 50 years that the Chappellet family has been producing wines on Pritchard Hill in Napa Valley. These days, the second generation has joined the efforts at Chappellet. Their work involves a firm belief in sustainable practices, which they have become vanguards of in Napa Valley. A mere 16% of their 640 acre estate is under vine. The areas that are planted have been certified organic since 2012. Phillip Corallo-Titus joined Chappellet as assistant winemaker in 1981. In 1990, he took over the reins as head winemaker and has been driving the winemaking team ever since.

While their portfolio includes Napa Valley standard bearers such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, they also feature Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Malbec and more. In short, it’s a diverse offering loaded with wines produced from their Estate, as well as select vineyards that meet their standards. Here’s a look at four current standout releases.

Chappellet 2014 Chenin Blanc ($32)


This wine is comprised entirely of Chenin Blanc from Estate Vineyards on Pritchard Hill, which were replanted in 2004. Fermentation took place in stainless steel, neutral French oak and concrete egg. Not many producers in Napa Valley make a Chenin Blanc, and even fewer do it well, but this offering from Chappellet hits all the right notes for me. This starts with the lovely and somewhat boisterous nose, which features lychee fruit, apricot and bits of citrus zest. Additionally, the even-keeled palate is loaded with stone fruits, minerals and a dollop of spices. All of these characteristics come together on the clean, crisp finish, which has good length and depth.

Chappellet 2014 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35)

The fruit for this Chardonnay was sourced in a handful of diverse areas in Napa Valley, the common thread being that they are all cool-growing regions, which is ideal for Chardonnay. It sat on the lees for eight months and was aged in one third new French oak. From the first whiff to the last sip, this remarkably delicious Chardonnay is simply loaded with a ton of pure and delicious fruit flavors. Orchard fruit and lemon curd aromas leap from the nose. The deeply layered palate is filled with apple, pear, bits of mango, toasty oak and more. Vanilla bean, crème fraiche and continuing pure fruit flavors are all evident on the long, lush finish.

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Martin Ray Vineyards & Winery highlights two California regions

Martin Ray Winery’s history dates back to the 1940s in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their second life started in 1990 when Courtney Benham bought the winery and moved it to the Russian River Valley. While they’re now deeply ensconced in Sonoma County, Martin Ray Winery continues to produce wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains too. Both of these areas are well suited for a variety of grapes to thrive. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are among those that do the best. I recently tasted a number of selections from them. Here are four that I really enjoyed and highly recommend.


Martin Ray 2014 Mill Station Chardonnay ($35)

This is entirely Chardonnay from a single vineyard located on Dutton Ranch in The Russian River Valley. Aging took place over 12 months in 40% new French oak. After aging, select barrels are chosen for the final blend. The spice-driven nose also features a bevy of other attractive aromas such as subtle toast, crème fraiche and yellow apple. Lemon curd, Anjou pear and more are on display throughout the layered and complex palate. Continued spices, hints of lemon merengue pie crust and more emerge on the long luscious finish.

Martin Ray 2014 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay ($35)

All of the fruit for this wine (entirely Chardonnay) was sourced at the namesake vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Barrel aging took place over a year in 40% New French oak. Pineapple and spice aromas dominate the lovely nose. Asian pear, citrus zest and hints of stone fruit are all apparent on the engaging palate. Wet limestone and gentle hints of brown sugar appear on the above average finish.

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Grgich Hills Estate: A Napa Valley legend

There are certain producers whose name must be included when discussing Napa Valley’s rise to prominence in the wine world. Grgich Hill Cellars is on the shortlist. Back in the ‘70s, founder Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelana. It was Mike who produced the 1973 Chardonnay that ultimately won the Paris Tasting in 1976. Up against many French wines, Chateau Montelena won that day. But really it was Napa Valley as a whole that was the beneficiary, and Mike’s wine was what captured the prize. A year later, Grgich Hills Estate was born.

40 years after that tasting in Paris, Mike Grgich’s name is one of the few that must be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Mondavi when discussing the most important people in Napa Valley history. Grgich Hills has continued to make world class wines that speak strongly of their Napa Valley origins. Here’s a look at three of their current releases. These are wines that are available around the country and offer a peek into why Napa Valley is one of the greatest wine-growing regions in the world – not to mention why Mike Grgich is one of the most legendary figures to make wine there.


Grgich Hills Estate 2013 Chardonnay ($43)

The fruit for this wine came from Estate Vineyards in American Canyon and Carneros. It’s composed entirely of Chardonnay. It was fermented and aged in French oak over a period of 10 months in a combination of new (40%) and neutral (60%) oak. 30,300 cases were produced. From the first whiff to the last sip, what stands out most about this Chardonnay is the pure expression of fruit. The oak regimen provides accents but never detracts from that. Aromas of white peach and apple light up the nose. Bartlett pear, subtle nutmeg and golden delicious apple flavors are all present on the palate. Continuing spices and a host of minerals drive the impressive, crisp and refreshing finish. Mike Grgich has been making world class Napa Valley Chardonnay for over 40 years, and this is the latest example.

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Australia’s Henry’s Drive continues to deliver

I first became aware of Henry’s Drive about a decade or so ago through their well-known blend, Pillar Box Red. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to taste their wines on numerous occasions, often with founder/owner Kim Longbottom and/or their winemaker. On a recent trip to Düsseldorf Germany to attend ProWein (the largest Wine & Spirits trade show in the world), I had the pleasure of once again tasting with Kim. We went through their current portfolio. As always, I found quite a bit to like in their wines, as well as plenty of value for my wine dollars. Wines that I have always found to be tasty and well-made have continued to evolve and improve from one vintage to the next. Here’s a look at four of my current favorites.


Henry’s Drive 2014 “H” Chardonnay ($27.99)

Composed from 100% Chardonnay from Padthaway; aging took place in French oak over a period of 10 months. Apple aromas, which are underpinned by bits of vanilla, light up the exuberant nose. Yellow melon, pineapple and toasted nut characteristics are present throughout the palate. Minerals, white pepper and continuing yellow fruit flavors dominate the above-average finish. This is a fine example of Chardonnay that shows off plenty of fresh fruit and good complexity.

Henry’s Drive 2013 Pillar Box Red ($14.99)

Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are blended to create this wine. Each variety is vinified and aged separately. The blend is created just prior to bottling. Red cherry and spice aromas dot the nose. Taking the first sip, I was immediately struck by the mouth-feel of this wine, which is softer than prior vintages. Bits of savory herbs counter-balance oodles of red and black fruit flavors on the substantial palate. Earth, leather and toasty oak are all part of the terrific finish. This wine has been an outstanding value for years. This particular vintage is likely the best version of this wine yet. It’s simply a delicious mouthful of wine that will provide drinking pleasure for the next several years.

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Toad Hollow Vineyards: Delicious wines & great value

Toad Hollow Vineyards was founded in 1994 by a group of friends. They launched their winery with “Francine’s Selection,” an unoaked Chardonnay. At the time, particularly in California, this was not only uncommon, it also ran against the trend. Defying what was popular, Francine’s Selection was a huge hit and sent the vineyard off and running. In the years since, their portfolio has expanded to include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and more. I tasted through some brand new releases and found a lot of deliciousness for a small amount of money.


Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay ($13.99)

This Chardonnay is produced from fruit sourced in Mendocino County. It’s made up entirely of Chardonnay. The 2014 bottling represents the 22nd vintage of this wine, the most popular in their lineup. The moment you stick your nose in the glass, a burst of fresh, unadulterated apple and pear aromas leap out. The palate is similarly stuffed with oodles of fresh fruit flavors accompanied by hints of spice. All of these characteristics continue on the long, fruit-laden finish. This is a delicious, easy-to-drink Chardonnay that you’re going to want a second glass the moment the first is empty.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2014 “Eye of the Toad” Rosé ($11.99)

This dry Rosé is composed entirely of Pinot Noir sourced at a variety of vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Toad Hollow has been producing a dry Rosé for 20 years, well ahead of its current popularity in the U.S. A hint of crème fraiche underpins the freshly picked strawberry aromas that inform the nose here. Bing cherry and continued strawberry notes are in evidence on the beautiful and bone dry palate. White pepper and continued red fruit flavors are evident on the crisp, zippy finish. If you need a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken, this is it.

Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16.99)

This offering is composed entirely of Merlot sourced at the Richard McDowell Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. These 16 acres were planted in 1995. Ripe wild strawberry and raspberry aromas fill the nose. The palate is loaded with darker fruit flavors such as black raspberry and cherry, as well as black pepper and hints of toast. Light bits of espresso and a touch of dusty cocoa emerge on the finish, along with pomegranate and sour cherry notes. This is a well-priced and tasty example of Merlot.

Toad Hollow Vineyards 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($19.99)

This is a single-vineyard Pinot with all the fruit coming off of “Goldie’s Vineyard,” their estate property. After fermentation and being racked twice, it was aged in French oak for 14 months. Rose petal and red cherry aromas leap from the nose here. The palate is full of even-keeled red fruit flavors supported by a significant spice component. Bits of savory herb, sour red fruits and continued spices are apparent on the long, even finish. This terrific under-$20 Pinot Noir will pair well with a remarkably wide array of foods.

All of these wines represent better than average values. The Pinot Noir, though, is the steal of the bunch. This notoriously fickle and difficult to master grape is also one of the hardest to find at a bargain. At under $20, this offering from Toad Hollow Vineyards is precisely that. Buy a case and drink it as a house wine. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in California Pinot Noir.

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