It was the early 1990s and Flora Springs had been in business for just over ten years when I decided we needed to have a tasting room on Highway 29.
There wasn’t quite as much tourism in Napa Valley as there is now, and I wanted a place right on the highway where people could easily visit us. I bought a building – an old HVAC shop – just south of the old Dean & DeLuca gourmet grocery (now Gary’s Wine & Marketplace) in St. Helena. I cleaned it up, installed a circular bar, hired an artist to paint some wall murals, and opened up for tastings.
But business was slow. I kept hearing folks say they hadn’t “noticed” the tasting room, even people who stopped at Dean & DeLuca. I decided to do something about it. My wife, Carrie, and I had recently visited Barcelona and seen many of the buildings designed by renowned architect, Antoni Gaudí. I loved the flow and imagination of his structures, the fanciful nature of his designs.
You can guess what happened next.
When I returned to St. Helena I consulted with a local architect, and together we designed a new Tasting Room that echoes, in Gaudí-like fashion, the look and feel of a wine cave set into a mountainside. We used bent plywood to give the structure its curvature and painted the outside to represent geologic striations in the earth.
Inside we created separate tasting areas made to feel like private rooms in a wine cave, and installed a curved tasting bar with a modern bistro vibe. The rooftop, which has magnificent views of mountains and vineyards to the west, feels like a comfortable living room, a place where people can relax and enjoy a glass of wine.
Wine Tasting in Saint Helena
Thanks to my son Nat, our Tasting Room has gotten some upgrades recently, and I’m excited about the improvements. I always wanted it to be a place where people could indulge their sense of sight as well as taste and smell. Most of all, I want the Tasting Room to inspire curiosity and delight, to be the place where people come to learn more about the legacy of Flora Springs.
“Everyone who knows me knows I have an affinity for wild boars. That’s why we named one of our Single Vineyard Cabernets Wild Boar. My first encounter with this animal happened back in the mid-1970s, when my dad retired from Bechtel. He was looking for land to invest his money in. At the time, land in Napa Valley cost $25,000 an acre, and Dad wasn’t ready to pay that much. But in Pope Valley land was ‘cheap’ – only $1,000 an acre. He found 100 acres that had a lake, walnut trees, etc. The owner said he’d sell it, and my Dad thought he had a deal. Then he read somewhere that Louis Martini had bought it. Apparently the owner wanted to sell to a ‘local.’
So, my dad bought a place next door, 500 acres, 60 of them planted. There was an old house on the property with nine bedrooms and eight bathrooms but no living room. (One can only surmise what that house was used for!) My dad asked me if I could build him a living room – I was still a contractor at the time.
So I hired some guys, and one of them was up on a scaffold doing some plastering and he saw a wild boar grazing nearby. He called me and said ‘John, there’s a wild boar on your property. Can I shoot him?’ I said ‘Why don’t you call the game warden?’ He said ‘John, a wild boar is a varmint; all I need is your permission.’ I said ‘Ok, as long as you give me the hind quarter.’ So he got his gun, and he shot it. A few minutes later I get a call from my dad: ‘John, John! One of your guys just shot the neighbor’s pig!’”
Addendum: “I did finish that house, and we put it up for sale, along with 20 acres. A woman who was the ex-mayor of Coronado wanted to buy it, said she wanted to live in the country. But she didn’t know if she could manage 20 acres…could we make it 10 for the same price? Done!”
Over that past few weeks our vineyards have been abuzz with activity. As farmers, our family constantly tends to the vineyards which means meticulous care for every vine throughout our properties in Napa Valley.
With the immense amount of rainfall received over winter, we are seeing a lot more vigor than in previous vintages. Earlier this month we kept busy with leaf removal and shoot positioning to foster adequate light through the canopy and properly see each cluster to maturity. Things are looking great out there and we anticipate a bumper crop for the 2017 vintage.
Over the years, my family has acquired nearly 350 acres of vineyards – which means we have spent much time planting and replanting vines. The newest of late, is the replanting of a 15-acre fallow block on our Crossroads Ranch to Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 2. We anticipate this vineyard to come to fruition in the next 3-to-5 years with excellent Oakville fruit. Stay tuned!
As a vintner, one of the questions I’m asked most often is: “Is this going to be a good year?” The reviewer, of course, is referring to the condition of the grapes. My response is that growing grapes is kind of like a football game. They both have four quarters.
The first quarter – or season – is winter. In football, the first quarter involves deciding what game plan to use after seeing your opponent on the field. Winter for the grape farmer is much the same, analyzing the rainfall and pruning the vines to get the desired outcome. The way you prune – and the number of spurs you leave on the vine – determines the amount and quality of the fruit you’ll get. In football, similarly, the first quarter determines what formation best suits the situation.
The second quarter is spring. Now the game gets interesting. The farmer must play defense, protecting the vines from frost and wind. Either condition can change the whole offensive game plan, causing damage or loss of the tender young buds and flowers that eventually turn into fruit. Either of these would be akin to losing your star running back, something to avoid as much as humanly possible.
At half time the farmer pauses to consider the crop load and canopy management techniques. At this point, with the end game in site, efforts should be directed at the highest possible quality of fruit, not necessarily the greatest quantity.
The third quarter is summer. Things happen quickly during this phase. The clusters take shape and the grapes go through verasion (when they soften and, with red grapes, change color). The farmer prays for warm days, cool nights and low humidity. He or she must determine when to water and how best to prune the vine canopies so that the grapes get enough sunlight to ripen but not burn. The third quarter of the football game is also a show of force, a time to determine the strength of your team and the weakness of your opponent and let them play to their capabilities.
Then there’s the fourth quarter. At the end of the third quarter of Super Bowl 2017, if you were to ask the Atlanta Falcons coach if this was going to be “a good year,” he would have had a positive reply. The fourth quarter is crucial. You either have a maintenance strategy or a go-for-broke strategy. In grape farming, if the weather is favorable and the fruit looks good, it’s a matter of maintaining your position with a little crop management, dropping a little under-ripe fruit to encourage uniform ripening. But if the weather changes and rains are on the horizon, you might try to hasten ripening by dropping lots of fruit, hoping that a smaller crop will ripen more quickly. If it does rain, you can try to keep the berries dry, but if the berries break down before picking, you know how the Atlanta Falcons felt after Super Bowl 2017.
So you see, farmers never know how a vintage will turn out until the fruit is picked and the game is over. I hope you enjoy your next bottle of wine, and next year’s Super Bowl!
This time let’s talk about a couple of the great utilitarian wines that will complement a whole host of foods that we eat quite often. Let’s discuss one white wine and one red wine.
Sauvignon Blanc is the white wine I have chosen to focus on. The Sauvignon Blanc grape can be grown in a multitude of climates with varied results. It can take hot or cold climates. The hot climate tends to yield grapes with high sugars which leads to a fuller wine with sweet heavy flavors. The grapes grown in cooler climates usually will contain sharp fruity flavors with a very crisp finish. Of course, the moderate climate gives the best results with great fruit flavors of melon, honey and citrus. All three styles of wine can suit a large range of food pairings. The wine is especially good with green vegetables such as celery, asparagus and brussel sprouts, but it is also good with entrées like white fish, shell fish, chicken and pork. Sauvignon Blanc is a terrific cocktail on a hot Arizona summer evening. The crisp flavors of the wine replenish the palate.
Now we will move on to Merlot. Merlot is a very likable mild flavored red wine that can be consumed young. I often compare a Merlot grape to the blueberry of the berry family. Just as a blueberry has a pleasing flavor it lacks the long full aftertaste that other berries like strawberry or blackberry have. For me, the pedigree of any wine is in the finish. So, the good producers of Merlot generally blend some other varietals such as Malbec or Petit Verdot to add length and fullness to the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, was the primary blending wine for years but it changes the flavor pattern of the wine to a mellow Cabernet rather than a full-flavored Merlot. Because of these new blending techniques now used for Merlot enhancing the natural flavors rather than changing the flavor pattern, Merlot is one of the fastest growing varietals in the marketplace. Merlot does have a place on your table, it is the perfect complement with lamb or duck.
To me, the real value of a bottle of wine lies in what you eat with it and who you share it with. When I select a wine I always imagine the food that I’ll serve, and if possible the characteristics of the person or people with whom I will share it. At our table, one of our favorite topics of conversation has to do with the wine we’re drinking and the food we’re enjoying it with.
Let’s say I’ve selected Chardonnay as the white wine and Cabernet Sauvignon as the red wine. In my opinion, Chardonnay is the Queen of the wine world and Cabernet Sauvignon is the King. Winemakers love to work with these varietals because of the naturally full flavors that come from the fruit. Plus, there are many more complex flavors that arise during the fermentation and aging processes.
I like Chardonnays that are full-bodied, meaning they show weight on the palate. At Flora Springs, we like to have a slight creaminess to the wine and at the same time preserve the acidity so it will finish clean on the palate. The flavors experienced should be in the range of fresh-picked fruit such as pears or peaches. One should be able to taste a delicacy of honey with a slight lactic tone. My favorite food pairing with Chardonnay is lobster or even better, lobster bisque. The buttery character of the lobster and creaminess of the bisque are perfect with a well-made Chardonnay. And my favorite companion to share this pairing would be my wife, Carrie.
Now for the King. Cabernet Sauvignon berries are small and intensely concentrated; they don’t carry a lot of liquid that would dilute their flavor. I think of the Cabernet grape as masculine with its tannic structure. The tannins give the flavors of cassis and blackberries a ride on the palate, but the palate doesn’t getting overly saturated with fruit flavors. Thus, Cabernet is perfect with a medium rare steak; it cleanses the palate of the fatty meat flavors and leaves a lasting impression of structured fruit. Again, Carrie is my preferred partner with Cabernet, along with the rest of my extended family!
I hope you enjoy my passionate description of the wines I love. May your next bottle of wine be enjoyed in good company!