Behrens Family Winery (formerly Behrens & Hitchcock) is located on the top of the Spring Mountain District near the Sonoma County line – about a 20 minute drive from the town of St. Helena. The winery is located at the end of this district’s infamous “summit wine road” which leads off the very windy Spring Mountain Road. This summit road is also home to a number of Spring Mountain wineries – Behrens Family Winery is the last winery at the end of the road. Two couples founded the original winery; Les Behrens and Lisa Drinkward and Bob and Lily Hitchcock.
Les and Lisa met in Arcata, California (near the city of Eureka) – married and then started a restaurant in 1991 – called Folie Douce. It was through the restaurant that they met future business partners Bob and Lily Hitchcock. Eventually Les decided to make home wine – but then soon started making limited quantities of commercial wine from premium grape sources in the Napa Valley. For several years Les make the arduous 8-10 hour round trip drive from Arcata to Napa to pickup the grapes and drive them back to Humboldt County (shout out to Eureka based 101.5 KEKA Thunder Country with its 100,000 watts of broadcasting power) where he made the wine in a garage. Their first crush was in 1993, a mere 175 cases – and production moved from their garage to a stand alone building next to Les and Lisa’s home in Arcata.
Les and Lisa sold Folie Douce Restaurant in 1997 and moved their production to the Napa Valley. In 1999 they purchased land high on Spring Mountain and soon after Les and his son Sean constructed a small winery. While they still do not own any vineyards – they continue to make their wine here. They source from a variety of Napa vineyards up and down the valley (10+ at the last count). Never formally trained in wine making – Les has subscribed to the “learn by doing” motto – he has been the primary winemaker for every vintage since 1993.
Sometimes in certain industries, regardless of background, when someone is passionate about something they often create something just as good as those who were formally trained in a particular field. Such is the case with Les. He was a former grave digger, wood worker, turned construction worker turned restaurant owner, turned vintner. His wines have received exemplary ratings and a loyal following from his customers including from Robert Parker who first wrote about them in 1997 (helping expose their wines to numerous collectors).
In 2005 Bob & Lily Hitchcock decided to retire and Les and Lisa bought out their share of the winery and changed their name to Behrens Family Winery. The first vintage of Behrens and Hitchcock was in 1993. The last vintage bottled under the Behrens and Hitchcock label was a 20 year anniversary red blend from 2013.
Wine making here involves both family and friends; several other labels have been made at the winery over the years (or are still made at the winery) including Drinkward-Peschon (a partnership between Lisa and winemaker Françoise Peschon), Robert Nenow, Zeitgeist Cellars and Les’s son Sean who founded Sova Wines. They produce red wines exclusively, focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and a variety of blends. A number of their labels are based on specific pieces of art – usually paintings. Total production as of the time of our latest update is about 4,500 cases per year. Their wines are generally made in small lot productions.
Spare Me is a blend that changes every year – it is a barrel selection of wines that do not fit into their other wines. The very unique label is of a woman bowling based off a statue they purchased on Ebay – two random details on the statue stand out, one are the letters SH (one could take this to mean St. Helena and the year 1962 – the year Lisa was born). The 2013 Behrens Family Winery Spare Me is dark in the glass with darker fruit aromas including blackberry along with notes of leather and cedar box on the bouquet. A very approachable wine in it’s youth, it is somewhat juicy on the palate with mouth watering acidity. Medium bodied with somewhat dusty fairly well integrated tannins anchor the finish.
While they produce some wines year after year – a number of their wines/labels have only been produced for a few vintages.
Two wines really stood out from our tasting; Cemetery and the Family Reserve. The Cemetery name is interesting for two reasons; Les used to be a gravedigger and the vineyard providing the fruit for this wine is adjacent to the St. Helena Cemetery. The label was drawn by the acclaimed artist Rosemary Feit Covey. It is one of the darkest wines one will ever see, is big and is very full bodied. In comparison the Reserve is a totally different wine. It is a blend of four Bordeaux varieties and is only made when they feel the “juice” is of the highest standards. It is a very elegant wine, soft on the palate and smooth on the finish.
Tastings are appointment only for serious wine enthusiasts and is always kept private for your party. Some of the other labels made at the winery are also available for tasting. A visit to the winery used to incorporate one of the Napa Valley’s more unique tasting experiences. Les and Lisa acquired a 1947 Westcraft trailer which served as their tasting room for a number of years. This type of trailer used to be the top of the line at the time. It made for an unusual and intimate Napa tasting experience – one that is perched at the top of the ridge with stellar views of the nearby mountains and valley far below. Guests often drool over the fantastic views from the winery overlooking the Vaca mountains to the east.
Opting for a more accessible tasting room, Behrens Family Winery maintains their primary tasting room ‘hidden’ just off of Main Street in the southern part of St. Helena. The ‘little yellow house’ is open for tastings by appointment; it is located next to one of St. Helena’s most auspicious and well-known vineyards – Dr. Crane. This is not the first time this home has been used as a tasting space – prior occupant was Karl Lawrence Cellars.
Despite being so close to Highway 29 this is quite a relaxing place to sit and enjoy wine either inside their tiny tasting salon or outside in their small patio area. The traffic from the nearby highway is not a distraction.
Folie Douce Restaurant, Arcata
Les and Lisa founded this restaurant in 1991 in Arcata. The name means tender madness in French and also refers to a 1951 French film of the same name. Lisa focused on the cuisine (french inspired) and Les curated the wine list eventually receiving the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.
The restaurant has changed hands several times since Les and Lisa sold it, mostly recently in late 2018 – but remarkably has survived the transition in ownership and continues to serve fine food with a much downsized wine list from when Les and Lisa owned it. But during a meal we did spot a Behrens Family wine available by the glass. The current ownership has changed the menu somewhat from prior ownership – adding some Lebanese dishes.
Several curbside 2-hour parking spots are available directly in front of Folie Douce on G Street and there is additional parking directly behind the restaurant in a small parking lot. Paintings from local artists decorate the inside walls and are for sale. The restaurant works with a number of local purveyors for ingredients and other culinary supplies. Locally sourced oysters and fresh caught fish show up on the menu. Great flat bread – especially when it comes directly to your table out of the oven and still piping hot.
For more information, to schedule and appointment to their tasting room and or to join their mailing list, visit: www.behrensfamilywinery.com
Folie Douce Restaurant, Arcata