Summer / Fall 2006
Four to Watch
These Napa Valley vintners are making wines you need to be drinking
By Deborah Grossman
These winemakers don’t have big tasting rooms. They don’t have
colorful marketing campaigns. Their names are not Mondavi or
Shrem or Coppola. You may not find them on a visitors map, and
you may not find their wines in BevMo. In fact, because their
production is very limited, you may not find some of their wines
at all. But these “undiscovered” vintners are crafting some of
the most fascinating vintages in Northern California.
Green & Red Vineyard
Order the house Zinfandel at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and what
do you get? Green & Red Vineyard Zinfandel, made by Jay Heminway.
The former sculptor swapped molding clay for pruning vines on
the steep hillsides of Chiles Valley, on the east side of the
Alice Waters is not the only one to recognize Heminway’s affinity
for coaxing great grapes from the earth. Wine critic Robert Parker
Jr. and The Wine Spectator have raved about the vineyard-designated
his 200-acre estates for several years. Heminway also makes a highly regarded
Sauvignon Blanc, as his wife and business partner, Pam, is a white wine aficionado.
The winery’s name, honoring the estate’s red soils veined with
green serpentine, reflects Heminway’s respect for nature. Solar
energy powers 80 percent of the winery’s operations. Heminway
monitors water levels with high-tech sensors and prevents soil
erosion with permanent cover crops. “We intend to keep production
small so we can manage the vineyard and winery with full attention
to detail,” says Heminway. This meticulous approach is paying
off. Look for recently released Tip Top Vineyard Zinfandel, from
the highest elevation in the vineyard. This wine is well structured
with a depth of dark fruit flavors, concentrated but not overly
Besides Chez Panisse, you can find Heminway’s wines at Bistro
Don Giovanni and Angèle in Napa; Redd in Yountville; Premier
Cru, Mosaic, and the Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma; Ame and Boulevard
Francisco; and in stores such as St. Helena Wine Merchant and The Depot.
Abe Schoener doesn’t own a vineyard or winery building and gives
odd names to his wines (such as Glos, Proserpina, and Scythia). But this
passionate vintner is on his way to the pantheon of highly acclaimed winemakers.
Schoener earned his winemaking stripes at luminary Luna Vineyards in Napa from
1999 to 2004 (he was winemaker from 2002). That was after Dr. Schoener (he’s
got a Ph.D. in philosophy) decided to change from his career as a college professor.
Scholium means modest project or commentary in
Latin. Schoener produces 600 cases and aspires, someday, to 1,000
cases. His vision for a tasting room is an unassuming shed or
barn (insofar as he has any vision for a tasting room at all).
His wines do not showcase fruit flavors. “My wines smell more
of mineral things, gunpowder or lead pencil,” says Schoener,
“and also nuts, spices, and animal flavors like prosciutto or
cheese.” Schoener allows the yeast and aging process to transform
grapes into wine with great depth of flavor. Indeed, Schoener
says his Babylon Petite Sirah from Suisun Valley is “almost undrinkable”
on its own. “Babylon is not an everyday wine. It needs a seared
steak or intensely flavored stew to complement its dark and tannic
side.” Schoener purchases all his grapes from growers that he
knows personally. He charges $80 for most bottles and eschews
fancy advertising campaigns. He says, “I want to find 600 people
who love my wine and sell it to them.”
Order these intriguing wines at The French Laundry in Yountville
or Myth and Jack Falstaff in San Francisco. You can buy them
at Back Room Wines in Napa or Dean & Deluca in St. Helena.
Crocker & Starr Wines
Pam Starr calls herself a “winemaker vagabond with a road show.”
A once aspiring dentist who detoured into food science and enology,
she applies her energy, analytical skills, and creativity to
the winemaking career she loves.
After gaining wide acclaim for several wines at Spottswoode
Winery, Starr has made her wine at custom facilities for 15 years.
Silent partner Charlie Crocker owns the historic St. Helena vineyard,
where she creates her estate wines. “My goal is to make great,
concentrated estate wines that are a steal at any price,” says
Starr. Her Stone Place Cabernet Sauvignon blend, at $65, compares
favorably to other cult wines at $125. Her Sauvignon Blanc costs
$25 and Cabernet Franc, with flavors and aromas of violets, blueberry,
and tobacco spice, is $40.Cabernet Franc? “This is my ‘hair-on-fire’
wine,” she says. “Everyone told me I was crazy to make it, but
Franc is fun.” And other people are realizing that Franc is indeed
fun. Ted Allen, the tastemaker on the Queer Eye TV show,
picked the ’03 vintage as a top holiday wine, and Barbara Walters
recently drank it on The View.
Starr sells her wine on a first come, first served basis from
her mailing list. Her wine is also sold at Dean & Deluca
and other fine wine retailers and at restaurants such as Redd
in Yountville, Press in St. Helena, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and
Gary Danko in San Francisco.
Barlow Vineyards is a family affair. In 1994, two generations
of Smiths uprooted from Newport Beach to settle at their newly
purchased vineyard estate on the Silverado Trail south of Calistoga.
When they made 25 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon for their own enjoyment
in 1997, their consulting winemaker told them they should sell
it. Rather than naming their endeavor Smith, they christened
the winery with the more memorable “Barlow,” after the middle
name of both dad Warren and son Barr.
What makes Barlow Vineyards so special? The 38 acres of estate
vines, planted close to the hills yet on the valley floor, grow
in a unique soil that intermingles layers of gravel, sand, and
loam (essentially volcanic soil). This carefully nurtured environment
yields superb grapes for the 1,700 cases of estate Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot, Zinfandel, and Barrouge blend. The Cabernet Sauvignon,
which sells for $40, garnered gold from the San Francisco Chronicle. Barrouge,
the proprietary Cab-Merlot blend (also $40), is more aromatic
and softer than the Cabernet and is extremely popular. Look for
the newly released 2005 Sailor’s Delight Cabernet Rosé, about
$12. “This should be a fun summer wine,” says Barr. “We want
people to enjoy our wines as much as we enjoy making them.”
Buy Barlow Vineyards wines at wine specialty shops such as Back
Room Wines in Napa and St. Helena Wine Merchants, and on the
menu at Brix, Stomp, and Meadowood in Napa Valley.