Photography by Yuri Krasov
Amid all the touristy hype of California Wine Country, there are still places where you can be treated like a family guest, and called by name. On a long weekend trip, my husband Yuri and I decided to move past the city of Napa, where it’s so easy to get one’s fill, so to speak… and explore the Valley a little further.
We made a tasting appointment at the Benessere Vineyards specializing in Italian varietals and located in the picturesque foothills of St. Helena. Then we put on our map Les Ivrettes Vineyard – a patch of land producing a very special cab sauv, and finally, we reserved the last remaining room at the recently opened Hotel Luca in the town of Yountville.
Our scenic drive among the yellow mustard fields and rows of sleepy grapevines ended up in a sunlit garden of Benessere (“well-being” in Italian), where we were touched by a warm welcome even before we entered the tasting room. Barbara Fanucchi, our knowledgeable winery guide, poured our tasting flights and gave us a quick overview of how Benessere came to be. John and Ellen Benish bought the winery in 1994, after vacationing in Italy. Back in the 1800s this land was inhabited by the Wappo Indians. In the 1930s and 40s it used to be a dairy ranch, in the 1960s it was a horse breeding and training farm, and in the late 70s and 80s it belonged to Charles Shaw Winery until the “two-buck Chuck” went bankrupt. Now, out of 42 acres, about 34 are planted with sought-after Italian varietals producing between 5,500 and 10,000 cases. Benessere Aglianico is a rare in Napa Italian varietal.
We started our tasting with a refreshing 2009 Pinot Grigio, then moved to the estate 2009 Rosato with sparkly pink watermelon color and aroma, and then to the flagship wine of Benessere – 2007 Sangiovese with strong Tuscan heritage.
The 2007 Old Vine Zin, full-bodied and complex, came from a neighboring 89-year-old vineyard, owned by Bill and Kathy Collins, while the 2006 Phenomenon was composed of the estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah – a crown jewel of the winery.
Benessere also produces rare Napa Italian varietals and blends like Sorridente, Aglianico, Sagrantino and an exquisitely delightful dessert wine, Muscat di Canelli-Frizzante (www.benesserevineyards.com).
Next, we were heading to Les Ivrettes – a small vineyard on the Lewelling Ranch, nestled between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains. Lewelling Vineyards occupy an intermediate area irrigated by Sulphur Creek, but elevated above the valley floor, so it has good drainage and is not exposed to summer heat late in the season. Les Ivrettes is the source of the one and only Trivium Cabernet Sauvignon, a 100% cab – dark, rich, and pure.
Several years ago, three wine industry veterans – winemaker Jack Stuart, grower Doug Wight and marketer Stu Harrison – joined forces to bring Trivium to fruition on a piece of land where their young daughters used to play and sometimes try wines, borrowed from their fathers’ cellars. The name of the vineyard, Les Ivrettes (tipsy girls) reflects the shared memories of the Trivium partners, while the name of the wine (meaning three roads’ cross-point) refers to the three friends working together to make their dream of a perfect wine come true (www.triviumwine.com).
After a day of personalized wine touring and tasting in St. Helena, we were ready to embrace the luxuries of Hotel Luca in beautiful Yountville. Opened in 2009, Hotel Luca fits right in with the downtown boutiques, art galleries and antique shops. The two-story 20-room hotel is built in a Tuscan villa style with a cozy courtyard, a stone tower over an arched walkway, balconies overlooking the fountain, and 200-year-old roof tiles coming from Italy.
Settled in our beautiful room with a view of the blue mountains from our balcony, we were sipping champagne, poured at the reception upon our arrival. It felt good just to be here. Everything seemed carefully selected to suit our taste – Restoration Hardware furniture, super-comfy Italian bedding, and a spacious bathroom with a heated tile floor… We almost decided to skip dinner in favor of a hot tub with hotel-provided salts, but it wouldn’t be wise to miss the Tuscan-style delicacies at the Cantinetta Piero.
Fresh, seasonal, regional – that goes by default in this neck of the woods, but also well-executed, perfectly portioned, and nicely served. Were we glad we decided to dine in-house!
Warm from the oven bread arrived with salsa rustica made of three types of olives, oven-dried tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. My favorite burrata was so good, it came to the table unadorned – just lightly drizzled with olive oil and salt. Wild boar salami shared a serving board with San Daniele prosciutto, and Sonoma duck breast was done just right medium-rare, accompanied with carrot puree and topped with a duck egg. Sweet ricotta cheese cannoli were sprinkled with candid orange peel and chocolate shavings – delish!
After dinner, we took a walk along the main drag – Washington Street, stopping at the galleries, admiring public art sculptures installed on every corner, and taking in the breathtaking views of the valley sunset. Then I got my long-anticipated hot tub with aromatic salts, and slept like a baby. Next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at Cantinetta Piero before our check-out time.
Hotel Luca is a full-service property, with a restaurant, spa, outdoor heated pool, and a 24-hour workout room. It is children- and pet-friendly, caters to business and vacation travelers, and has concierge service to help you book wine tasting, dining, transportation, and various activities, including hot air balloons. Perfect for small weddings and all kinds of celebrations, it also offers two fully-furnished residences for stays of thirty days or more (www.hotellucanapa.com).