Update: Following the death of owner Budge Brown (on the day of our visit in May, in fact), Cleavage Creek closed its doors permanently in July 2011. However, I think that many will still find the story below of Budge and the winery of interest. The article also includes several other Napa wineries.
A beautiful warm spring day in Northern California wine country was ideal for a Napa Day Trip.
Last weekend, I met up with travel and wine writer, Dave Thompson, for a Napa day trip that started at Cleavage Creek Winery in Pope Valley, far removed from the busy big name wineries along Highway 29 through the Napa Valley.
On the way there, a wrong turn in St. Helena took me on an enjoyable scenic route to Pope Valley with miles of twisting, narrow roads through the hills and past peaceful Lake Hennessey.
Sadly, Budge Brown, the owner of the winery, had died in a small plane crash in the Sierras and was discovered just the night before our visit.
Jean Varner, Director of Winery Operations, gave us a warm welcome in the tasting room and spoke with pride about Budge, his passion for producing quality wines and his dedication to breast cancer research and support efforts. Cleavage Creek Winery was a labor of love for Budge after the death of his wife in 2005 from breast cancer.
The labels on Cleavage Creek bottles feature a breast cancer survivor whose inspiring story is also shared on the website. 10% of sales are donated to breast cancer research and support organizations. We tasted a variety of wines, including the Petite Sirah, Budge’s favorite. I purchased a bottle of the popular Secret Red, made from a blend of grapes that changes each year.
With some time before our second appointment, Dave suggested we stop at Clif Family Winery and Farm’s tasting room called Velo Vino (Bicycle Wine) back down the hill in St. Helena. Owners Kit Crawford and Gary Erickson are the same people who make the famous Clif Bar energy and nutrition products.
Pouring wine for us in the tasting room was Jeanie, a friendly and enthusiastic “wine domestique”. My favorite was the 2006 Gary’s Improv Syrah. Each year the “Gary’s Improv” label is put on the wine that is produced from the year’s best varietals and vineyards.
With a commitment to the environment and sustainability, Clif Winery donates one percent of their gross profits to 1% For the Planet, an alliance of businesses who support environmental groups around the world.
Tedeschi Family Vineyards, a private winery outside the town of Calistoga off the Silverado Trail, was our next stop. Owner Emil Tedeschi welcomed us on the patio next to the winery. He was a gracious host, serving us a much appreciated light lunch and pouring his delicious wines. I appreciated the opportunity to visit and taste wine with the proprietor.
The Tedeschi family first planted grapes on this property in the 1960s. Emil now plants Cabernet grapes in his 2-acre vineyard. It’s noteworthy that the alcohol content of the wines produced at this winery (13.5%) are a nice contrast to many Cabernets from Napa that can be well over 14%.
One of the highlights of the day was getting hands-on experience in the vineyard, tucking the vines inside the wires that are strung from each end of the rows.
Inside the small winery at table next to the oak barrels, we also tasted wines not yet bottled. It felt special to have this behind the scenes experience. I was happy to receive a bottle of the Tedeschi 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon that I had enjoyed so much at lunch.
My final stop in the valley was at Charter Oak Winery, on a quiet side street in St. Helena. It is a small family winery where a “Zinart” party was being hosted by winemaker Robert Fanucci and his wife, Layla, an internationally acclaimed artist.
The winery is known for their Zinfandels made the “old-world way” using hand tools that were crafted by Robert’s grandfather a hundred years ago.
A long-time friend of the Fanucci family gave me a brief tour outside where I enjoyed seeing Layla’s colorful chickens that produce organic eggs for the family.
Since I only had time to taste one wine, it was recommended that I try the excellent Monte Rosso Zinfandel, made by Robert’s son and assistant winemaker, David.
For a comprehensive wine country resource, check out Dave Thompson’s The Napa Wine Project.
These photos are courtesy of D. Thompson:
Pietro and Jean Varner Cleavage Creek Winery
Cathy Sweeney at Tedeschi Family Winery