An Afternoon at Saintsbury in Napa Valley

You’d think a Napa winery that has been around for almost thirty years would have a big tasting room for tourists to pile into by the bus load. For many visitors to Napa, stepping into large tasting rooms give the immediate impression of a cash cow. Have you seen our club? We have a wine club. Join our club. Subscribe to our newsletter. We have wine and knick knacks for you. Your resistance in futile….we will convert you into a customer.

Sometimes you want to visit a winery in Napa valley without feeling the obligation..any obligation to anything other than enjoy some wine. After thirty years, Saintsbury is just getting around to opening their doors to visitors, and it’s like time forgot this place. Here, you get to just chill out without having to fight for attention at the tasting bar. The experience happens outside in Saintsbury’s garden where you’ll be greeted by Ralph, the 18-year old tabby. He’s a lover.

Words that describe the experience at Saintsbury—easy, casual, laid back, unpretentious, comfortable. You get the idea. When we went on a sunny Sunday, they told us being open on Sunday is a new thing at the winery. Guess they hadn’t gotten around to opening the doors to visitors. Instead, Saintsbury has quietly gone about the business of making great wine year in and year out since the early days when founders Richard Ward and David Graves were featured in Wine Spectator. In those days Pinot Noir didn’t enjoy the popularity it has now (in fact, it was often called ‘Garnet’ on the label), but you gotta hand it to the guys for sticking to their guns and handing their hat on it.

They have two things going for them at Saintsbury—a winemaker trained in Burgundy, and estate-grown Carneros fruit. Do the math on that and you’ll find it’s a match made in heaven. Not surprising, Saintsbury’s main two grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Saintsbury style focuses on fruit that may exhibit youthful charm, but really develops complexity over time, maybe more than most California wines. I tried a 1986 Carneros Pinot Noir earlier this year and found a new appreciation for the agability of California Pinot’s.

On this particular lazy Sunday, we tasted through a handful of wines including the Vin Gris Rosé of Pinot Noir. Some of the standouts:

2011 Vin Gris – Rosé of Carneros Pinot Noir made with whole cluster pressing resulting in a delicate balance of dry and sweet. Notes of fresh picked Oregon strawberries with hints of flint, guava and white peach. Drink now for freshness

2010 Carneros Chardonnay – Reminds me of Cuvaison’s approach to Carneros Chardonnay. By blending Chardonnay grapes from a wide range of clones such as Dijon (95, 96, 548 & 809), Wente Cabral and various other selections in Carneros you get complexity. Aromas of Bosc pears, red Fuji apple, orange blossom and white carnations. Drink now-2016

2008 Brown Ranch Chardonnay – From macro to micro, Saintsbury is really wanting to express terroir with Dijon 95 & 96 clones in the Brown Ranch Vineyard, located on Old Sonoma Road in Carneros. Taransaud and François Freres barrels, 30% new oak and malolactic fermentation sounds like it would result in a butterball, but Saintsbury does things with finesse and agability. There’s restraint resulting in a more mineral-driven, flinty style of Chardonnay. Drink now-2020

2009 Carneros Pinot Noir – Like the Carneros Chardonnay, the Carneros Pinot benefits gets complexity from a variety of fruit sources. After 30 years of winemaking in this region, these guys know where to get fruit, when to pick it, what oak to use and how to blend it. For the price, this is a steal. Getting a Pinot Noir made in a more restrained delicate style like the Carneros “cuvee” is a win.

2009 Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir – This is the only wine from Saintsbury that isn’t made with Carneros fruit. Anderson valley has established itself as a premium Pinot Noir producing region, but the thing I like is Saintsbury gets their fruit from elevations of 700-1000 feet. Shallow gravelly loam soils on steep hillsides provide smaller concentrated yields around 1.5 tons per acre. This vineyard provides more of a darker, spicy perfumey style Pinot Noir that will benefit from time in the cellar. Drink 2015-2022

2009 Toyon Farm Carneros Pinot Noir – Toyon Farm was planted in 2000 and 2001 in the “banana belt” of Carneros so named because it’s shape on the map in the northeast corner of the apellation. The farm was originally a horse ranch located between Hyde vineyard and Brown Ranch. Notes of red raspberry, cardamom, chai and restrained oak over a plush mouth filling texture. Drink now-2022

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