Having Fun With Wine in Calistoga, California by Emma Krasov

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Travelers to California Wine Country often start and end their adventure at the foot of Napa Valley. It happens for obvious reasons. The city of Napa, big-name wineries, and the abundance of destination restaurants in the area make a journey complete for the majority of tourists.

However, if you can resist the temptation of overtasting in Napa, take that Route 29 a little farther north, heading to the town of Calistoga for a change. Bennett Lane Winery is located at the northernmost edge of the valley. Its off-the-beaten track location grants a serene environment and an intimate setting for some leisurely wine sipping in its cozy tasting room.

A miniature “petting” vineyard in front of the Mediterranean villa-style building showcases different grapes for close comparison. Clearly marked rows of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Chardonnay provide Fruit 101 at a glance, with their glossy or matt, smooth or warped leaves, and smaller or larger, darker or lighter grapes. During our visit, Rob Hunter, a consulting winemaker of Bennett Lane, offered detailed descriptions of local varieties, and let us try and compare each fruit from the vine.
He also orchestrated the Custom Blend Experience, well worth the trip…
Our group of six was invited into a cellar room, where first we approached a table with different aromatics placed in empty wine glasses. Smells of fresh raspberry, blueberry preserves, or a candid pineapple were supposed to help us define the aroma of a cab or a char. Then, we sat down around another table, where Bennett Lane’s own Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah were lined up for the winery’s Maximus blend, characterized as “red feasting wine.”

In Custom Blend Experience classes, participants create their own versions of Maximus, mixing the three wines in any proportion according to their individual tastes. Then they bottle, cork, label, and take home their creations.

Handling a pipette and a beaker as well as pouring and mixing my own blend immediately made me think of infinite possibilities: of a winemaker’s talent probably buried deep inside my journalist’s soul. What if… And yes, tasting your own creation surely proves that the best wine for you is the one you like. The class also provides a great opportunity to see how tastes really differ in the people you thought you knew…

Bennett Lane is owned by Randy and Lisa Lynch, who purchased the winery some five years ago. Randy is a former NASCAR racer, who became the first team owner to put wine logo on a stock car shortly after acquiring the winery.

Bennett Lane produces five wines: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Primus Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Los Carneros Reserve Chardonnay, Maximus, and white Maximus. Bennett Lane is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Custom Blend Experience sessions are offered for groups of six or more and require an advance reservation. There is a free picnic area behind the testing room, overlooking Mount St. Helena and the Palisades. No appointment necessary for the picnic area. Located at 3340 Highway 128, Calistoga. Call for reservations and more information: 707-942-6684, or visit: http://www.bennettlane.com.

Frank Family Vineyards occupies the historic Larkmead winery in Calistoga, the third oldest one in Napa. Built in 1884, it was clad with native sandstone in 1906. Today, the building is noted in the National Register of Historical Places and is named a Point of Historical Interest in the state of California.
A prominent Disney executive Rich Frank and his wife Connie own the winery. Last year, they opened a new tasting room in the original owners’ residence, a classic Craftsman bungalow. Actually, there are several rooms. The front one is for sparkling wines, which traditionally constitute a larger part of the whole production here. It has a spacious bar area and is generously decorated with Mr. Frank’s pictures in the company of one or another showbiz celeb, including Oprah among the most recent visitors. Other rooms are for still wines, for VIP receptions, and for private tastings, decorated like a 1950s club with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich on the walls.

In the course of our visit, Todd Graff, the winemaker, took us on a tour of the original building, where he introduced the whole process of winemaking with the help of some out-of-barrel tasting. That was a rare chance to follow the journey of Frank Family’s nationally distributed Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from a cloudy mush to a finished product, delightful with the depth of flavor and the clarity of color.
It obviously takes an experienced winemaker to imagine how a yeasty liquid with a smell of laundry detergent would eventually evolve into crisp, cool, silky nectar. Five sparkling wines are handcrafted today in the old stone building, adorned with floor to ceiling antique barrels and modernized with technologically advanced refrigerated cellars. Signature Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rouge, and a vintage Reserve are all made in the traditional French methode champenoise style. Among the still wines Frank Family produces Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and three Cabernet Sauvignons in small quantities, plus even more limited Reserve Chardonnay, Reserve Zinfandel, Reserve Sangiovese, Reserve Pinot Noir, and Port.

Frank Family Vineyards is open to the public daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The tasting is free, as well as tours of the premises, and the use of picnic grounds. Located at 1091 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga. For more information, call 800-574-9463, or visit: http://www.frankfamilyvineyards.com.