Tour of Napa and Sonoma winery tasting rooms

With stops at Artesa, Etude, Hess, Silver Oak, Cult, Peju, Ehlers, Kaz.

Memorial weekend kicked-off with a blast as Clint and I were finally able to make it to a San Francisco Loreto Bay Homeowner’s club event at Kaz Winery, located in Sonoma County and owned by a member of our illustrious club!

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SF Bay Area Loreto Bay Homeowners having dinner in the barrel room of Kaz Winery

The pilgrimage to Kaz Winery started very early in the morning at the southern tip of the Napa wine region. We visited some new as well as some familiar wineries. For those that are only reading this for Loreto Bay info, feel free to jump to Stop #8 in this entry.

Stop 1: Artesa Vineyards & Winery (www.artesawinery.com) (ahr TESS uh)

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View from the entry of Artesa Winery Visitor Center

Located at the southern part of Napa, in the Carneros region, this was one of the first wineries we visited on our trip. We had never been to this winery and in truth, had saw a sign for it as we were “killing time” waiting for the Etude Winery to open its tasting room.

Walking up to the winery was a curious exercise. Unlike many of the other wineries in the region that have a european castle flair, Artesa’s visitor’s center resembles an Egyptian glass pyramid. A structure that would have otherwise been overbearing and stark completely exposed, seemed to complement the surrounding natural beauty by being tucked against the hillside. In fact, the actual structure is completely hidden when one approaches the winery. Instead, you are greeted by simple cement stairs graced with cascading waterfalls. Clint recalls these stairs as dramatic, I remember them being understated, you decide for yourself. It is only as you reach the top are you surprised by the modern glass structure housing the visitor center. At this point, turn around – you will be awestruck by the incredible views of the wine region from this vantage. I was impressed with how the sculptures and pools of man-made water enhanced the beauty of the valley, instead of being ornamental obstructions.

The interior is done in a modern, art gallery/wine bar style. You pay for your tastings at the front (regular flight $10, premium flight $15), and then proceed to the wine tasting area with receipt. The large open area has little tables and incredible views that invite you to sit, sip and enjoy. With the crowds that were already there so early in the morning, many had answered this invitation.

I know I have spent most of this profile describing everything but the wine. If you visit, you will understand. As for the wine, for a very young winery (originally opened as Codorniu Napa 1991 making sparkling wine, 1997 converted to Artesa and started making still wines with a new injection of funding and wine-making expertise) they make some solidly excellent wines across the board for the price point. Clint and I tasted the premium flight and we liked each one of them, however our favorites were the Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Franc.

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Sculpture featured on Artesa’s wine labels

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Modern water fountains at entry of Artesa.

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Clouds make for a dramatic view of the valley.

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Artesa Tasting Room

Stop 2: Etude Wines (www.etudewines.com)

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Very understated entry to the tasting room at Etude.

Clint and I couldn’t have planned a greater contrast in wineries when I looked at my watch and seeing it was after 11 am, proceeded to Etude Winey. This was our first time at Etude and I had wanted to go to the winery after I purchased a couple of bottles of their 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which had scored 92 points on Wine Spectator and Pinot Noir last year.

The winery entrance was quite nice with iron gates that had was now opened for the public. Beyond this though, we were greeted by a very understated (both Clint and I agree on this) tasting room which was simply an office room with a bunch of cubicles and three make-shift tables set out to be the tasting areas. There are two menus to select from($25/each), one for their Cabernets and the other for their Pinots. We chose the Cabernet menu since we had yet to taste the 2004 Etude Cabernet since we had decided to age the bottles we have. Mark, who poured our tastings was very knowledgeable and had wonderful stories to share about the dynamics of the wine industry in the area.

The cabernet was very good, but the one that was exceptional were:

–  the 2004 Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ($100, 324 cases) for those that like their Cabs spicy and peppery.

– the 2004 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($100, 125 cases) for those that like their Cabs bold and fruity

We didn’t try the flight of Pinots but a couple next to us from Montreal did and recommends the 2005 Heirloom Pinot Noir ($90, 1091 cases).

And here I’ll point out the other contrast. Whereas Artesa wines start in the mid $20’s and peak at just under $60, Etude Wines start at $40 and peak at $100.

If you visit Etude, you will really get the sense of a winery completely focused on winemaking.

The only thing that spoils this image a little is that Etude was bought a while back by Beringer Glass Wine Brands who now owns quite a number of the wineries in the region (Beringer, Meridian, Chateau St. Jean, Chateau Souverain, Stag’s Leap Winery, St. Clement, Etude, Stone Cellars).

I do think it is getting increasingly tougher for small wineries to survive as prices per acre of vineyards and crops from the most established vineyards get bid up by wineries backed by deep corporate or family pockets.

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Tasting wines at Etude.

Stop 3: Hess Collection Winery (www.hesscollection.com)

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With a stop to Hess Collection, Clint and I thought we finally settled into a nice traditional Napa Winery…until we toured the art gallery. For those that haven’t visited Hess, besides the great Cabs they are known for, they are also infamous for their art gallery which displays a subset of Donald Hess’ vast collection accumulated since the 1960’s. Currently featured were the works by an artist who had taken on the identity of another person, donning a blond wig and trench coat, the artist captures the life of this fictitous character through her works of art. You are not allowed to bring wine up to the second and third floor of the art gallery but Clint and I wish we did as it may have helped us to understand some of the modern pieces better.

We took a detour and hijacked an in-progress tour of the winery and saw some intricate bottling equipment and chemical lab that was behind the scenes of a very beautiful art gallery and tasting room.

Our favorite wine from the tasting ($10) was their Hess Small Lot Syrah which was very bold, toasty and spicy.

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Entry to Hess Collection Winery.

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Barrel Room at Hess Collection.

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Photo of Clint since he always complains he is never in any of the photos.

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Tasting wines…need I say more?

Stop 4: Silver Oak Cellars (www.silveroak.com)

A classic established winery started in 1972, Silver Oak has become known for producing consistently excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. When we stopped by, their Oakville winery and hospitality center was in the midst of construction.

The tasting room was a makeshift structure one commonly sees at a home construction site where the model homes are still under construction, albeit a larger porch area. The place was swimming with Silver Oak fans who seemed unabashed by the muddy path to the temporary tasting room and were busy tasting wines. We didn’t taste at this winery because the place was too busy and we have some  ’02s already in our cellar, I felt obliged to get some of the ’03s just to make sure I would have a vertical of such a classic staple of Napa Valley and figured I could do this online.

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On our way to Silver Oak.

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Silver Oak Winery under construction.

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Solar panels at Silver Oak. Now that we have our own, we get excited every time we spot solar panels.

Stop 5: Cult Wine Central(www.cultwinecentral.com)

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On our way to Silver Oak, we noticed a cult wine festival happening and so on our return back we decided to stop by. Tastings were $30/person which includes tastings from all of the wine labels at the festival and appetizers. When we arrived, the festival was winding down and several of the wines we wanted to taste were closed or sold out. It also wasn’t the best atmosphere for wine tasting as there was a lot of loud music which I find distracts one from focusing on the wines. Everyone pouring were very friendly, however could not go into details about their wines or winery because of the large amount of foot traffic going through the place.

Later on, we did meet a couple at Peju, who had stopped by earlier at this event and really liked the wines from Fife Vineyards and Ghost Block.

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Cult Wine Central wine festival.

Stop 6: Peju Winery (www.peju.com)

Clint and I are Estate Red Wine Club members at Peju Winery. Besides the great Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah at this winery, we also just love the architecture. The green roofs at Peju are very distinctive and as you enter the winery, you are greeted by the most beautiful magnolia trees I have ever seen. No surprise as prior to starting their winery business 25 years ago, the Pejus were in the landscaping business. When we arrived inside Peju winery, we thought we had arrived at the waiting line for a big concert. The entry way was packed with people waiting to get “seated” at wine tasting bars. Unlike other wineries, at Peju you give your name to the host who puts your name on his list. Pre-numbered groups are brought to tasting locations throughout the winery.

Clint and I decided to first tour the winery so we headed upstairs where there is an art showcasing some of Lee Lawon’s works (www.LeeLawson.com). Every artwork on display is available for purchase. I just love the style and decor of this winery which has some of the old european traditional flair with just the right hint of whimsy.

When we finally got back to the entrance, it seemed busier than when we first arrived. We put our name on the list and it still took about 20 minutes before we could finally get into a tasting. The wines did not disappoint. We were a little frazzled by the lack of organization getting us into a tasting session, at the same time, its nice to see how popular Peju has become.

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Going to the tasting room at Peju.

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Distinctive Peju building on most of their wine labels.

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Sign on top of Peju winery door.

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Interesting taste buds chart. There is a belief there is actually a fifth taste bud called Umami which senses L-glutamate in food proposed by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist. I didn’t know this factoid, my uncle brought this up over dinner yesterday when we were showing pictures from our wine country trip.

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Some Peju boxes.

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Our wine tasting host.

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Me figuring out our wine collecting strategy.

Stop 7: Ehlers Estate (www.ehlersestate.com)

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Front of Ehlers.

Ehlers is another winery that we have a membership at. We like this winery for its philathropic heritage. Part of the proceeds from wine sales benefits international cardiovascular research via the Leducq Foundation (www.fondationleducq.org).

Besides this, I’ll admit that their Cabernet Sauvignon 1886 bottle is by far the most beautiful wine bottle I have ever seen. If you think you have seen a more beautiful bottle, I’d be interested in your selection. I had wanted to stop in and pick up a couple more bottles of the 1886 to add to our cellar collection. Unfortunately because of the long lines at Peju, we missed the tasting hours (10am-4pm) and were only able to do a drive by and see the newly renovated winery building (beautiful).

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Ehlers wine tasting building.

Stop 8: Kaz Winery for the Loreto Bay Homeowners Event (www.kazwinery.com)

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Kaz Winery Tasting Room.

Ehlers being closed was a signal to Clint and I that perhaps it was time to proceed over to the Sonoma part of the wine region and go to our final destination and the ultimate reason we were in this part of California – Kaz Winery. This little winery, owned by a fellow Loreto Bay Homeowner, has been in production for 25 years and only produces 60 barrels (~1200 cases) a year. It’s tucked between Chauteau St. Jean and Landmark Vineyards along the Adobe Canyon Road.

The wines were very good and the fact that the wines have some of the most interesting bottle art and names is just an added bonus. Names such as Dudes (Petit Sirah), Red Said Fred (Zin, Cab, Merlot, Petit Sirah blend), and Plunge (Sangiovese) make the wine tasting experience a delightful adventure.

Besides the great wine, about 30 LB homeowners had flocked to the event bearing side dishes and desserts for the potluck event graciously hosted by Rick and Sandi Kasmier. Sandi Kasmier served the best Lasagna I have ever had and a dangerously addictive cheese appetizer. Whoever made the trifle dessert, my taste buds are still thanking you.

Kaz kicked off the meeting with some important items to discuss including:

– IRS 3520/3520A forms – still quite a bit of confusion but between the group, we were able to share experiences on this.

– Concerns of locaton of transformers in the community and ensuring they are not located by homeowner’s windows and locations that their noise can be a disturbance.

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– Furniture shopping ideas

Once business was concluded, we all had a great time, good food and the event really reaffirmed the reason we bought in Loreto Bay.

As much as we love the sea, architecture and sustainability aspects of Loreto Bay, what actually made Clint and I take the leap of faith 2 years ago was the community of people we met who were going to be our neighbours. We were able to catch up with familiar faces: Tom & Sharon, Jane & Sharon, Barry & Pat, and Marsha & Chuck as well as new ones. We left the event happy that we made that decision years ago.

Kaz and Sandi Kasmier: Clint and I had a wonderful time. Thank you for so generously hosting this event and the wines we have from your winery will bring us many more great memories, I am certain.

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Kaz Winery.

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Our host Rick Kasmier.

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Sign at Kaz Winery.

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Our Loreto Bay meeting, very formal indeed!

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Serious side of Kaz as he conducts the Loreto Bay meeting.

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A bunch of us have dinner in the barrel room as it was quite cool outside…yes, we are west coast weather wimps.

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Kaz Winery as labels and posters with Kaz posed in strange expressions. I thought it would be cool to get one of our very own.

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The hat suits Clint.

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Kaz signs our wines.

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Leaving Kaz’s full of food, wine, and good cheer (me, not Clint, he was the “designated driver” – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

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Loni Stark
Loni Stark is a self-professed foodie, and adventure travel seeker, and yet is also passionate about technology’s impact on business and creativity. She's the host of our Stark Insider video features. It’s been said her laugh can be heard from San Jose all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. She makes no claims to super powers, although sushi is definitely her Kryptonite. Loni's story...