Larkmead Vineyards is a winery you don’t often hear about even though the wines are excellent and they have a long history of producing wine in Napa Valley. In fact before prohibition they were considered one of the four great wineries in Napa Valley along with Beaulieu (BV), Inglenook and Beringer. To understand Larkmead a little history is in order. The original stone winery was built in 1884 by a S.P. Connor and was called Larkmead Winery (now home to Frank Family Vineyards) – whose driveway is merely several hundred feet east of Larkmead’s driveway. Lillie Hitchcock Coit purchased the property in 1892. The famous Coit Tower in San Francisco has the honor of being named after her as she left the city of San Francisco a considerable amount of money when she died in 1929 and Coit Tower was the city’s tribute to her. The tower is in the shape of a fire hose nozzle.
Lillie’s life was touched by several fires including at a hotel and a house in which she was rescued just before the roof caved in. As a result she bonded with firefighters and became the country’s first female volunteer fire fighter; in addition with her socialite connections she helped raise funds and awareness for firefighters. The site of Lillie’s original Larkmead Estate (not winery) is now home to the Three Palms Vineyard, a fairly well known northern Napa Vineyard. If you walk around the back of the tasting room you will see three small palms that Larkmead has planted in tribute to the original “three palms” vineyard.
Current Three Palms Vineyard (owned by TSG Consumer Partners, Duckhorn)
Coit Tower, San Francisco
The Salmina family (from Switzerland) leased the Larkmead property in 1895 and purchased the winery and vineyards in 1903. Felix Salmina, representing Larkmead Winery was one of the 7 founding members of the Napa Valley Vintners in 1944 – the other wineries represented were Beauliu Vineyard, the Napa Valley Co-op, CK Mondavi and Sons, Inglenook, Louis Martini Winery and The Napa Wine Company. The Salminia’s abandoned the winery building around the start of Prohibition.
In 1948 Larry and Polly Solari purchased Larkmead Winery. Larry was well connected in the world of wine – he later became CEO of United Vintners, a cooperative that owned several iconic area wineries including Italian Swiss Colony, Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyard. He was also Executive Director of Heublein (a large producer and alcoholic beverage distributor) and eventually was Chairman of the Wine Institute.
And when the train tracks used to run up to Calistoga, the nearest stop called Larkmead Station (long since gone) was located where the winery is now. The northern part of the train tracks were removed in the 1970’s; the tracks end in the northern part of St. Helena and are currently only used by the Wine Train offering food & wine experiences from the city of Napa to St. Helena.
In what changed the course of history for the original winery property, a doctor’s diagnosis at age 39 indicated Larry had cancer. What was perhaps a grim prognosis spurred him to sell the Larkmead property (although he kept the vineyards for his family). Two years later he received another diagnosis for a bill of clean health – he was now cancer free. After receiving this news he began building a new winery in the 1950’s on site of the existing Larkmead Winery.
Still under Solari ownership, Larry and Polly’s daughter, Kate Solari Baker and her husband Cam currently oversee the operations. Their continuous family ownership since 1948 makes this property among some of the longest owned pieces of land in the Napa Valley by one family. 1998 was their first modern-day vintage.
They produce high quality award-winning wines – wines that are often more reasonably priced then similar caliber wines on the market (although in recent years the prices have gone up). It is somewhat rare to find a Napa winery that only uses fruit from their own vineyards; Larkmead owns 110 acres of vines. Their wines are made in limited supply and their wine making efforts concentrate only on the wine varietals that grow in their vineyards.
The chic tasting salon was finished in early 2006 and was designed by noted wine country architect Howard Backen – who also designed the production facility. The space does not contain a gift shop, music, or food. An experience is about enjoying the wine and learning about the properties’ history and related stories. You can either taste at the counter or weather permitting on their back porch overlooking the vineyards. Ask to see some of their older vintage bottles – one on display dates from 1915 and still contains the original label.
How many Napa wineries make a Tocai Friulano from Napa vineyards…we have tried only a handful from the 950+ Napa based wineries and producers visited with to date. This varietal is originally from northern Italy – a small part of their estate is planted to very old vines of this varietal. One might almost confuse Tocai Friulano with Sauvignon Blanc as each varietal has some similar characteristics. The 2007 vintage is only their second release; it presents pretty floral notes followed by flavors of pear and citrus on the palate. This wine offers a nice balance between fruit and viscosity. Fortunately they produce this wine every year but in such limited production so it is highly allocated.
Larkmead also produces a Sauvignon Blanc; the 2006 vintage has already been highly rated. Our favorite red is their “Firebelle” Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. The 2005 vintage has a very elegant nose with delicious flavors of cherry and mocha. Its texture feels good on the palate; it is very supple with an elegant softness – containing just a slight smokiness on the finish.
The 2003 60/40 Blend is also drinking very nicely as of the time of this review. This wine is made in the style of Pinot Noir – no pump overs, just punch downs during the fermentation process, as a result, undergoes less maceration and finishes its barrel aging in neutral oak like their other reds. It is a light to medium bodied wine with excellent fruit characteristics including cherry along with nuances of cinnamon.
Often their wines are highly allocated and each wine is typically produced in very limited quantities. Their wine club is called the Larkmead Firebelle Society, paying homage to Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
A visit here is strictly by appointment often attracting collectors and those who intentionally seek out wineries “off the beaten path”.
Also of note: in 2008 a time capsule was buried next to the vineyards in front of the winery commemorating Larkmead’s 125th anniversary. This capsule will be dug up and opened in 2028. Photos, maps some “future” predictions and of course wine bottles were included in the capsule.
For more information and or to join their mailing list, visit: www.larkmead.com
Exterior & Vineyards