I suggested we take the "back route" this time, driving down Lincoln (the main street through Calistoga) to the end where it meets up with Silverado Trail and taking that south. This is technically not the fastest way, but it takes you through a winding, scenic, somewhat secluded portion of Silverado Trail that most people don't ever see.
The first noticeable thing is the Calistoga Beverage Company, distributors of Calistoga mineral water. I rarely see this building, but I always like the whimsical water bottle truck sculpture on the front lawn... it particularly caught my eye today with the way the sun was breaking through and glinting and glowing through the bottles perched in crates on the back of the statue.
Right next door is a small winery called "Lava Vine", which is where we parked and decided to go ahead and have a taste. The tasting room is a separate building in the back, behind the attractive old home and right next to some sort of orchard (olive grove?) We went inside and I was actually pretty surprised by how crowded it was! Granted, it's a small, quirky little tasting room -- only room for about 6 people at the tasting bar.
So we took a seat and looked around and just waited patiently for an open spot and for the pourer to become available, then we sidled up and decided to share a tasting; tastings are $10, refunded with purchase of a bottle. Even though they don't do the Napa Neighbors program, I think this is a very fair tasting fee policy. The tasting consisted of a Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a dessert wine (ruby port). They were out of whites for now, but the pourer said they do make a viognier and chardonnay which will be available in March. Also, since we were so curious about white wines, he poured us the last few drops of an open bottle of late-harvest semillon he had on hand.
To be honest, I was disappointed with this winery -- not with the tasting experience, which was fun and casual and I liked the tasting room atmosphere. But the wines themselves were simply not that good, yet had pretentious pricetags that were simply unwarranted. I noticed right up front on the nose of the syrah, before even sipping it, that it had a sort of hot, tart, prune-like scent. This is not entirely uncommon for syrah, but was far more pronounced with this one than most. Upon sipping it I said "This is... uh... different." And the pourer said "Really? It's actually a quite typical syrah, possibly one of the very purest expressions of the fruit." Hmm.. oh yeah? Where? Because I've had syrahs from France, California, and Australia, and the only ones that this one reminded me of are Yellow Tail and maybe Charles Shaw. The Lava Vine is better than the Charles Shaw syrah, which is horrible, but not any better than the Yellow Tail -- which retails for $7 while Lava Vine is $36.
That underwhelming, overpriced feel is what I got from most of the wines. It's not that they were bad or undrinkable, they just weren't particularly good either -- which is not what the pricetags would have you believe. The syrah was the least expensive at $36 and the others were about $50 each, with the port (also not great, and I love port) being $55 for 500 mL and the late-harvest semillon being $45 per 375 mL bottle.
Lava Vine also produced extra virgin olive oil, which they are currently out of but did have a few drops available to taste with some bread. The olive oil was tastier than any of the wines were, but at $28 / 500 mL bottle, I still think I'll pass (you can get equally good, and less expensive, oil down the road at Olivier in St. Helena) Normally I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to apply my $10 tasting fee to a purchase, but at this quality point and these prices (which should be half of what they are), I just couldn't do it... we paid the tasting fee and headed down the road. Still, I'm going to try to come back and try their whites in March -- some wineries just do a better job with whites than with reds.
At around 5:13 a fairly large building caught my eye. It looked new and I don't recall ever seeing it or the winery name before: B Cellars. The sign said "Open" but didn't list hours, so we pulled into the parking lot. There were plenty of people lounging around in the large tasting room, and the door was open and unlocked, but the sign said tastings ended at 5 pm, so we were confused but ventured in to take a look anyway. The pourer indicated that tasting had just ended for the day, so we said "Okay, thanks!" and turned to leave.
But then an older gentleman came over and ushered us in, saying that he owned the place and there was no reason they had to stop pouring -- he said we could stay, and since he was the boss, we could stay. So we decided to give the wines a shot after all. It was a little confusing at first, seeing a chalkboard with current tasting list, all of them with cryptic names: "Blend 23", "Blend 24", "Blend 25" and -- you guessed it -- "Blend 26" There was no tasting fee listed, but he informed us it was $15 for a tasting, comped if you buy 3 bottles.
This place has clearly gone all-out with the marketing; they clearly know the value of visual appeal and sales. The room's architecture was nicely done, they had glossy full-color brochures outlining the blends (along with recipes and food pairing suggestions), and even the wine glasses seemed to be very high quality -- they were unique looking, delicate, lightweight and easy to hold. I think many wineries underestimate the psychological power (if nothing else) that the wine glasses have; whenever I have wine in a light, well-balanced glass like this, I notice it makes the wine itself seem smoother and well-balanced, as well. Even when I'm aware of the psychological mind trick, it still works on me.
The owner (named Duffy Keys) explained to us that they used to be in a different location and just built this new place in September. He told us that their main wines are blends (as we noticed); our favorite was Blend 24, a "Super Tuscan" which blended sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah, to great effect. It was bolder and richer and less biting than the average sangiovese, but smoother than a cab and still had the definite hint of... something... blood orange and cedar? that comes through in sangiovese. We talked a bit about Tuscany and Chianti, and he seemed to delight in the fact that Sarah and I are heading to the Amalfi Coast for spring break in April. These Napa winery folks sure do love Italy!
B Cellars' blends were pretty excellent -- very smooth, very nice mouthfeel (blend 25 was the roughest in this department) and ranged from $36 (for the white viognier/chardonnay/sauvignon blanc Blend 23) to $75 (for the cabernet sauvignon, Blend 26), though our favorite was definitely the Super Tuscan (Blend 24, $45), which we bought 3 bottles of. The cab blend was great, but there are so many great cabs in the $75 range that I'd really have to make it a mission to try multiple ones and decide which is best. We were least thrilled with Blend 25 (syrah and cabernet sauvignon), though the combination of varietals was interesting and at least this one had flavors of real California syrah, unlike Lava Vine.