How Napa Rolls, Post-Pandemic

Food & Drink

After a months-long shutdown, California’s tasting rooms are ready to roll

After a long dry spell during the coronavirus pandemic, California’s tasting rooms are reopening to visitors, where permitted by county. Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s public tasting rooms closed on March 15, as part of the statewide shutdown. At the time of his order, the state had reported 335 known cases and six deaths from the virus—a time when the nation’s estimated infections were just over 3,000.

That seems like light years ago.

Since then, “pivot” became the buzz word as wineries reorganized their operations, outreach and staffing.

“The past three months, as wineries had to navigate closures, were a challenging but also a transformative time for the Napa wine industry. It forced us to get creative in connecting with our fans from across the country,” said Leslie Frank of Frank Family Vineyards in Calistoga.

While wineries adjusted to the new normal, the Wine Institute, a member-driven advocacy group for the California wine industry, developed guidelines for eventual reopening, and shared those with the state of California.

“The guidance we released helped prepare our members for reopening and showed the state, including the department of public health, that wineries were prepared to open safely,” said Tyler Blackney, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the institute.

June 5 began the return to normalcy as the governor gave the green light for business not-quite-as-usual, and with new measures in place. Re-openings for restaurants, bars and wineries are subject to approval by county health officers, who will rely on local epidemiological data to determine safe protocols as well as monitor possible outbreaks and rates of transmission, in the event of a new surge of infections.

Openings will occur on a county basis with guidelines adapted for the types of venues licensed to sell wine and spirits, in addition to the already-established CDC recommendations for hand-washing, social distancing and face masks. Wineries will be required to provide temperature and/or symptom screenings for workers, contractors and vendors coming on site. The state’s eight-page publication also includes guidelines for stepped-up sanitation of equipment, installation of air filters, and staggering employee shifts to optimize social distancing.  

Wineries spent the last couple of weeks dusting off and creating safe spaces for customers.

“We have reopened by appointment only, Thursday to Monday, and with protocols in place to comply with all of the social distance and health and safety protocols to keep our guests and our team safe,” said Remi Cohen of Lede Family Wines, which encompasses Cliff Lede and FEL vineyards.

Tom Gamble of Gamble Family vineyards, said that though his operations adjusted during the shutdown and they found new ways to reach customers, “nothing replaces in-person interaction celebrating the communal aspect of wine provided by a winery visit.”

So, if your summer plans include wine tasting on site, or if you want to shelter in your own yard and bring wine country to you via delivery, here are a couple to try:

Cliff Lede Vineyards, Yountville. Situated on 60 acres in the Stag’s Leap District, Cliff Lede’s eponymous winery, established in 2002, is a little bit rock and roll. Lede (pronounced lay-dee), named slopes for classic rock songs, such “Stairway to Heaven,” which with a 30 degrees slope, does justice to its name. The theme continues inside with signed electric guitars, photos of iconic musicians—the Beatles, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison. Tasters can sit in flower-power upholstered chairs and listen to tunes from The Police piped in. All this fun belies the serious intention of the wines.

The thoroughly modern winery (100% solar-powered, optical sorter, gravity-fed systems and specially designed tanks) offers five wines for wide distribution and a range for club members.

Like many in the valley, Lede focuses on Bordeaux varieties, but, he says, “You cannot try to shoehorn Napa into Bordeaux. We’ve learned so much in the past decade.” Here, they experience the most dramatic diurnal shift in the valley—at times, some 40 degrees between day and night. Winemaker Chris Tynan, a Colgin Cellars alum, said the hillside vineyards with their mix of soils and exposures still offer daily lessons in viticulture.

Top picks: The Sauvignon Blanc ferments in concrete eggs, which, with a bit of Semillon, adds a textural mouthfeel to the wine. The pretty lime-blossom and white-flower, slightly tropical nose is followed by mouth-filling lemon-curd and peachy creaminess. This is a rich wine whose SB roots are pulled back into focus with a savory botanic note ($28). “Poetry,” Stag’s Leap District, made from Lede’s signature vineyard, is a deeply hued wine with a seductive nose of dense black fruits, cassis, chocolate, coffee bean and eucalyptus and many of those notes follow through to the palate with layers of bramble and tarry, spicy. This is an exotic and powerful wine ($250).

FEL Wines, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast

Named for Lede’s mother, FEL is the sustainably farmed sister winery in Anderson Valley born 12 years after its Yountville sibling. Here, Lede says they have a “small lot approach to winemaking.”

Anderson Valley has made a name with its Alsace varieties and FEL’s Pinot Gris is a fair representation of that for which Alsace is known. FEL also excels in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, including several single-vineyard labels.

Tasting: The winery is offering tastings in Lede’s “Backstage Tasting Lounge” with Jerry Garcia artwork as the backdrop, or a VIP tasting in the courtyard of fives wines from Lede and FEL’s higher-level selections. Tables on the outdoor veranda are available for reservation.

Gamble Family Vineyards, Oakville. Third-generation farmer Tom Gamble cultivates 175 acres of vineyards in the Oakville, Mt. Veeder, Rutherford and Yountville AVAs. Despite the fancy pedigree, his property, with its low-slung white-washed buildings, resembles a low-key farm more than a wine estate (indeed, the cornerstone of the property is a 19th-century homestead). Founded in 2005, the sustainable winery produces Bordeaux-style wines, inspired by Gamble’s time working in France—so, more nuance, less fruit bomb. “We have honest wines that are fairly priced,” Gamble says.

For everyday light drinking, there’s an entry-level cab-driven rose ($20) or Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25); the wholesale reds include a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) and the Paramount Proprietary Red Blend ($90). The wholesale line is a well-priced range of what you can expect from the higher-end estate wines sold to wine-club members. Those vineyard-designate wines, sealed with wax and packaged in stylized bottles, combine Gamble’s sensibility for Europe and knowledge of the valley’s specific and unique terroirs. Nothing is uniform here, with each vineyard having its own microclimate, exposures, and mixes of young and old soils (loam, clay, gravel, volcanic).

Top picks: Gamble says he loved Sauvignon Blanc from his time in France, eschewing a lean and green style for a more white-floral and textured style. If, like me, you’re not a lover of herbaceous Sauv Blanc, both the Gamble Vineyard and the members-only (sorry!) Heart Block ($95) are beautiful expressions. The $25 bottle has a soft lemon-infused mousse quality to it. A bit of judicious aging takes off the green edge without disguising its character. The two wines share a tropical character, which become more complex and layered in the Heart Block wine, with added warm bakery notes (brioche, vanilla). The Cabernet Sauvignon (83%) is redolent of wet earth, forest vegetation and anise. Classic California Cab with black fruits, vegetal and chocolate notes, and taut, green tannins. Good for cellaring up to eight years.

Tasting:  By appointment.

Next installment of How Napa Rolls: Inman Family Wines, Mi Sueno Winery Ramey Wine Cellars

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