GEMS of Napa and Sonoma – The Best Wine Tasting Experiences
This guest post about GEMS wine tasting experiences in Napa and Sonoma comes from Jim at WINEtineraries.
A simple Google search will yield numerous lists of winery “gems” in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. There is just one list, however, that has been developed by winemakers and independent winery owners themselves. It includes (at the time of publication) 12 “GEMS of Napa and Sonoma.” The GEMS program was created to accomplish two objectives: to provide additional benefits to customers of the member wineries and for those wineries to cross-refer select customers. The GEMS wineries are independent, rather than collectively owned.
Membership in GEMS grows out of admiration among one’s peers in the industry for the wines produced and the quality of tasting experiences offered by the winery. Once a winery is invited into the GEMS program, it determines which of its customers will receive GEMS benefits — at no additional cost. These benefits include unique tasting experiences, savings on wine tasting, discounts on wine purchases, reduced shipping, etc.
Anyone can visit the wineries discussed in this post and enjoy the same or similar experiences described below. They are offered free or at a significant discount to certain members of GEMS wineries –- which are discussed in alphabetical order below. (Note: This post will focus on the experience at each winery, rather than the specific wines tasted, since tasting menus change often.)
AXR Napa Valley
Where can you sip exquisite wines in a fairy circle of coastal redwoods towering over cabins used as a brothel until 1941 on a haunted estate which, in 1886, became the first winery run by women? At AXR Napa Valley! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven past this property just north of St. Helena on the west side of Highway 29, the “main drag” through Napa Valley. The main building, which is most visible from the road, looks like it was uprooted from a family resort in the Catskill Mountains. Behind it is the former production facility, now repurposed into five different areas for wine tasting.
After touring the compact estate, wine glasses in hand, we moved to the main building for our tasting in the Parlor Room (pictured here). The wallpaper on its ceiling is meant to evoke thoughts of a smoke-filled room and its custom chandelier features globes designed to emulate supersized brandy snifters. Michelle Romaine, who describes herself as a storyteller, was the host for our tasting. She told us about the owner who died in the room behind us and whose ghost still makes its presence known (thankfully, not during our visit).
She went on to explain how the winery got its name — also an homage to its history. AxR is the name of a grape rootstock, originally developed in France and widely planted in France and California, which has played an important role in the wine industry. It also has a connection to AXR’s winemaker, Jean Hoefliger, who worked with grapes growing on AxR rootstock at Newton Vineyards before opening (along with 3 others referred to, collectively, as “the Fab 4”) AXR Winery in 2017.
Jean’s purpose in winemaking dovetails with his philosophy of life, which is summed up in a quotation printed on a display that greets you as you enter the reimagined production facility on the estate: “Enjoy the moments that truly matter with those who matter most.”
The GEMS benefit at AXR Winery in Napa Valley is a complimentary 90-minute signature tour and wine tasting for up to 4 people, which would otherwise cost $75/person. Advance reservation by phone or email is required.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the infinite number of variables that must align to result in a truly memorable bottle of wine. Each terroir is different, each varietal has its particular characteristics, each winemaker has unique idea for the best expression of the fruit with which s/he works, weather varies widely from year to year, etc., etc. Brion Wise, with his wife Ronda, came to California in 1993 to make “a wine of the world” that would rival the best wines he had tasted in his extensive travels during his career in the oil and natural gas industry.
Brion turned his vision into reality from the ground up (literally), starting with the selection of a terroir where great fruit could be grown, selecting the best clones to be planted on the estate, employing not one – but 3 – winemakers to let each work with fruit that best fits their style, and engaging the only master cooper in the U.S., who travels to France to select the trees from which to make the barrels that will be used in the aging of Brion’s namesake wine. Now, that’s commitment to quality!
To find B. Wise Vineyards’ Tasting Lounge at 9077 Sonoma Highway in Kenwood, look for the bright red sculpture made of painted barrel hoops (pictured here) on the right-hand side of Highway 12 as you drive toward the city of Sonoma from Santa Rosa. You can also take your tasting experience up a notch (or 3!) by making an appointment for a seated tasting in the B. Wise Vineyards’ Estate Cave in the city of Sonoma. Ronda’s hand is evident in the eclectic interior design, mixing 1920’s-era art posters from Paris with Wild West-themed bronze sculptures and vintage furnishings.
At the B. Wise Vineyards Estate, GEMS members will enjoy 2-for-1 seated tasting in the Cave once per year (cost is $65, and an appointment is necessary). Tastings last 90 minutes-2 hours. At the B. Wise Vineyards Tasting Lounge, GEMS members enjoy complimentary tasting for up to 4 people, once per year (experience lasts 1 hour-90 minutes).
Clos du Val
Just north of the town of Napa, on the Silverado Trail (which parallels Highway 29, but with much less traffic), is Clos du Val, a winery located in the heart of the Stags Leap District and which played a crucial role in the events that put Napa Valley on the map. Clos du Val was founded in 1972 by a descendant of the oldest winehouse in Bordeaux, Barton & Guestier, which set out to produce world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Its inaugural vintage was one of the six California wines entered in the 1976 legendary “Judgment of Paris.” In a rematch 10 years later, Clos du Val took first place!
Clos du Val means (in French) “small vineyard estate of a small valley”, but it is unimaginable to use the word “small” to describe this sprawling facility, the wines produced, or the tasting experiences offered here. Hirondelle House (pictured), the new tasting room which opened in 2018, is named for the swallows that return each spring to nest in the rafters and leave their mark on the side of an adjoining winery.
Inside, the walls and ceiling are paneled with straightened oak barrel staves from old fermentation tanks; concrete exterior walls are stamped with wood grain. The premiere of Somm 3, the third installment of the wine documentary series, was the first event held in Clos du Val’s new tasting room, where floor-to-ceiling windows frame glorious views of the vineyards. Bill Adrian, the host for our tasting, enthralled us with his knowledge of wine, how it ages, and how it pairs with food. Wines are made in the “Old World” style. They are less “fruity” with higher acidity and a slightly tart finish. This style results in wines that are food-friendly and age worthy – demonstrated when Bill brought out a bottle of its mid-range, mass production 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was spectacular!
The GEMS benefit at Clos du Val is a specially designed “Past, Present & Future” wine tasting experience at this storied Napa Valley winery. This includes a tour and tastes of a library wine (the past — ask if the 2001 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon is available), a selection of current releases (the present), and a wine from the barrel (the future). This experience is complementary for up to 4 guests and is at least a $200 value.
La Rochelle Winery
Unless you are already a club member or a GEMS member from an affiliated winery in Napa or Sonoma, you’ve probably never heard of La Rochelle Winery or its wine tasting offerings. Let’s fix that! Head southeast on Highway 12 from Santa Rosa through scenic Sonoma Valley to Kenwood (population 800) and turn left onto Adobe Canyon Road for 500 yards. There’s parking for about 6 cars, but it’s unlikely they’ll be filled. That’s because tasting at La Rochelle is by appointment only, and all appointments are private – you will have the undivided attention of your host! The charming property has a koi pond, chickens running around, and even a resident gopher!
La Rochelle Winery traces its lineage to Mirassou Winery (the Mirassou label was sold to Gallo in 2003), which was started in 1854 by the oldest winemaking family in the U.S. Named for the town in France from which the Mirassou family immigrated, La Rochelle (“little rock” in French) Winery specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, sourced from the premier vineyards for each varietal in California. The host for our tasting was none other than the winemaker and owner, Chuck Easley and Sophie, his adorable Lagotto Romagnola, the Italian “truffle dog”.
La Rochelle offers a variety of club options; one, CTB (“Chuck’s Totally Bitch’n”) Club, guarantees access to all new releases with a commitment of just 1 case per year. Chuck selects 3 wines for this case (shipped free), while the member selects the other 9 bottles.
La Rochelle Winery has eliminated “one size fits all” tastings completely! Would you like to compare the taste of wines made from different clones of Pinot Noir? How about comparing wines from the same clone and vintage but from different appellations? La Rochelle Winery will customize a tasting experience based on one’s personal interests. This is complimentary for club and GEMS members (up to 4 guests) — a value of $50/person.
Medlock Ames Winery
Every grape in Medlock Ames’ wines is grown on their Bell Mountain estate. Ames Morison, the winemaker, farms the 100% solar-powered estate organically, using no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. He will “drop fruit” rather than use grapes that fail to meet his exacting standards. As Medlock Ames’ previous president said, “It’s quality, quality, quality. It takes a lot of guts to throw away yield.”
Many of the vineyard blocks have fascinating stories; one goes all the way back to our Founding Fathers. The story goes that when Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Ambassador to France, he took cuttings from the vines at Chateau Petrus, the legendary Bordeaux wine house, to plant at Monticello. Most of those vines died, but a few of their progeny eventually found their way to Bell Mountain in California, were serendipitously identified on the estate shortly after Medlock Ames’ purchase, and today are used in producing the winery’s Heritage Merlot.
Medlock Ames’ tasting room (pictured above) is a reimagined century-old landmark at the intersection of California Highway 128 and Alexander Valley Road, just north of Healdsburg. Tastings here take place under a portico covered with grape vines or in the olive grove.
GEMS benefits at Medlock Ames include:
- a 90-minute tour and tasting at the Bell Mountain Estate for $60 (a savings of $15)
- 2-for-1 pricing on their “Current Release Tasting” at the Tasting Room (a $25 savings)
- and $10 flat rate shipping on the purchase of 6 bottles or more to get your wine back home
Additionally, for readers of this post, Medlock Ames is offering a $10/person discount on the “Olive Grove Experience,” where you enjoy a full bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Rose paired with a curated basket of Sonoma County bread, cheese, and chocolate, along with olive oil, jam, and produce from the Bell Mountain estate (use code MEDLOCKAMESVIP when making your reservation online).
HALL Wines, the critically-acclaimed Napa Valley producer of ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon, owns 2 other labels: WALT — where the focus is exclusively on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — and BACA, which specializes in Zinfandel. WALT Wines has 3 tasting rooms: in the historic Oxbow district in the town of Napa, just off the Plaza in the town of Sonoma, and their new facility on Westside Road in Healdsburg, which delights with panoramic vineyard views.
Carol Chapman, Tasting Room Manager for the Healdsburg venue, led us through the “Crossroads Tasting”, during which one samples wines from both the WALT and BACA labels. The latter gives playful names like “Tug O’War” and “Ring Around the Rosie” to its wines. We especially enjoyed “Stargazing” — a Marsanne/Roussanne blend. But that is only 1 of 4 tasting experiences offered there. WALT’s other tasting rooms offer 2 different experiences. A wine and chocolate pairing is available only at the Napa tasting room.
The GEMS benefit may vary depending on which tasting room you visit, but it will be complimentary for up to 4 guests per visit (a minimum value of $30/person). This benefit is available by prior appointment only. Call (707) 933-4440 to make a reservation.
While wine tasting experiences can vary at the different GEMS wineries in Napa and Sonoma, one thing they have in common is that you won’t be disappointed. Each winery offers something unique, and discounts and perks available to members make the visit even more valuable.
As noted above, anyone can visit these wineries. Every winery also offers memberships and subscriptions. Each GEMS winery determines to which of its club members GEMS membership is offered in addition. It may be a certain number of bottles or a certain annual minimum spend, so there’s not any single, uniform criterion. You can ask the winery itself, if interested in becoming a GEMS member to take advantage of the extra perks mentioned in this article.
If you’re interested in learning more about wine tasting trips, see Jim’s 8 Tips to Demystify Wine Tastings.