Larkmead Vineyards is a winery one doesn’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 Vineyard (BV), Inglenook and Beringer. To understand Larkmead one must begin with its rich history.
The original winery was built in 1884 by S.P. Connor which he called Larkmead (now home to Frank Family Vineyards and previously home to Kornell Champagne Cellars) – 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 – 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. She kept unusual habits at that time which were frowned upon simply because she was a woman – gambling, smoking cigars and helping fight fires. Supposedly she even dressed up as a man and was able to sneak into the men’s only Bohemian Club (an organization that is still active, reserved for men only other then select women’s nights down at the clubhouse in San Francisco and at The Grove in Monte Rio).
The site of the original Larkmead Estate (not winery) where Lillie used to live is now home to the Three Palms Vineyard, a fairly well known northern Napa Valley vineyard owned by Duckhorn Winery. Lillie oversaw the planting of these original three palms. At one point, Lillie’s family owned some 1,000 acres in the northern part of the Napa Valley.
Visitors who walk around the back of the tasting room will see three small palms that Larkmead has planted in tribute to the original “three palms” vineyard.
The winery has other intriguing historical connections. Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife came to the Napa Valley in 1880 to celebrate their honeymoon – they ended up staying some two months and would often visit Larkmead Vineyards. Their time in the Napa Valley is chronicled in his book, The Silverado Squatters. And in 1915 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco on the grounds of where the current Palace of Fine Arts is located. Held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal but also to showcase San Francisco’s recovery after the great 1906 earthquake, one of the exhibits was on wine – Larkmead took home 5 medals for their wines including three golds.
When the train tracks used to run up to Calistoga, the northernmost depot was located on what is now the site of Calmart – a stop south of Calistoga was called Larkmead Station (long since gone) and was located near the winery. The northern part of the train tracks were shortsightedly removed in the 1970s; the tracks currently end on the Charles Krug Winery property with the old metal rails running almost to Deer Park Road through the vineyards and are currently only used by the Wine Train offering food & wine experiences from the city of Napa to St. Helena.
The Salmina family (from Switzerland) leased the Larkmead Winery and property in 1895 (considered Larkmead’s founding date) and purchased the winery and vineyards in 1903 building the large stone winery in 1906 (which still exists at Frank Family). 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 Salmina’s abandoned the winery building around the start of Prohibition and ‘got by’ by selling grapes. And through marriage, the Salminas were connected to the long time farming family in the valley, the Morosolis (not to be confused with the Morisoli family).
Immediately following Prohibition, winemaking resumed and during the mid 1930s to the early 1940s Larkmead was producing some of the best wines in the Napa Valley (as evidenced by numerous awards earned for their wines). After Felix Salmina died in 1940 the winery changed hands several times until 1948 when Larry and Polly Solari purchased the 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.
Current Three Palms Vineyard (owned by TSG Consumer Partners, Duckhorn)
Coit Tower, San Francisco
In what changed the course of history for the original winery property, a doctor falsely diagnosed Larry with cancer at age 39. What was a grim prognosis spurred him to sell the Larkmead Winery property in 1952 (although he kept the vineyards for his family) and continued to sell grapes to other wineries. Two years later he received another diagnosis for a bill of clean health – learning that he never had cancer. After receiving this news he began building a new winery in the 1950’s on site of the existing Larkmead Winery estate.
Still under Solari ownership, Larry and Polly’s daughter, Kate Solari Baker and her husband Cameron (Cam) currently oversee the operations with the third and fourth generations also now involved. Their continuous family ownership since 1948 makes this property among some of the longer owned pieces of land in the Napa Valley by one family. Despite having made some wine in the mid 1980s, 1997 was their first modern-day vintage, a Cabernet Sauvignon overseen by consulting winemaker at that time, Paul Hobbs.
Besides jointly running Larkmead Vineyards with Cam, Kate is also an accomplished artist who works with pastel landscapes and oil paintings. She used to maintain a studio in Sausalito next to the Clipper Yacht Harbor and surrounding marina (home to numerous sailboats, and a marina we have sailed to and from many times). Primarily self taught – Kate has also taken classes at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and attended a Masters Class in Santa Fe with former UC Davis professor and well-known landscape artist Wayne Thiebaud. Kate also created the posters for Auction Napa Valley in 1995 and 2010 and some of her pieces are hanging in the tasting salon.
In 2019 Larkmead Vineyards donated $200,000 to the University of Davis Library to help preserve and digitize the work of Professor Emeritus Harold Olmo – noted for his work in viticulture and numerous travels around the globe doing research. Dr. Olmo used part of the Larkmead property to conduct a clonal selection trial of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1939.
Warm Weather Variety Vineyard
And in 2020, Larkmead finished planting a 3 acre plot (on the west side of the winery), featuring a number of ‘warm weather’ varieties – as part of a 21 year vineyard plan to ascertain which varieties perform well in this part of the valley. The impetus for this vineyard block was the fact that temperatures keep increasing every year – and they have noted their harvest dates have tended to be earlier then in years past. And in the last 20 years, people have been pushing the extremes with vineyard sites – merely based on the fact that they can do so.
During a visit to fairly northern vineyards in Skåne, Sweden (winemakers there told us that compared to 50 years ago they now have 3 to 4 more weeks growing time both due to warming temperatures and hybrid varieties). And during a Napa Valley focused visit to South America, including to Salta in northern Argentina we saw some of the highest vineyards in the world – the envelope keeps getting pushed, now there are vineyards even higher than in Argentina, growing in China.
The Larkmead ‘experimental’ vineyard is planted to a number of varieties including Aglianico, Charbono, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Zinfandel. Over the years, Larkmead may further propagate and eventually make wine commercially from varieties that do particularly well here. And of course test the market with these new wines through their existing customers.
The chic tasting salon and winery, including an expanded barrel room were completed between 2006 and 2014 – these were designed by noted wine country architect Howard Backen. The tasting salon space does not feature a gift shop, blasting music, or food. Rather, an experience is about enjoying the wine and learning about the properties’ history and related stories.
Visitors can either taste at the counter or weather permitting on their back porch, or in the garden area overlooking surrounding vineyards. And guest can walk over to the nearby vineyards if time permits.
A visit here is by appointment often attracting collectors, serious wine enthusiasts and those who intentionally seek out wineries “off the beaten path”. Ask to see some of their older vintage bottles – one on display dates from 1915 and still contains the original label.
Larkmead Vineyards produces high quality award-winning wines – which during the early 2000s were quite reasonably priced as compared to similar caliber wines on the market (although in recent years the prices have gone up significantly, and arguably, so has the quality). Less common then one might think, Larkmead only produces wines from grapes growing in their own vineyards (they own 110 acres of vines). They use approximately 1/3 of their grapes for the Larkmead wines and sell the remainder for various producers. Total production generally ranges between 6,000 and 7,000 cases annually.
Tocai Friulano is an obscure variety in the Napa Valley – we have only tried this wine several times out of the 1000+ Napa Valley based wineries and producers visited with to date. This variety is originally from northern Italy – only about 1 acre of their estate is still planted to some of these vines – dating from around 1930. This head-pruned vineyard block is located on their property on the other side of Larkmead Lane but unfortunately wine has not been made from these vines since 2016 (since they are no longer able to produce balanced wines and the required amounts of acid). One might almost confuse Tocai Friulano with Sauvignon Blanc as each variety has some shared characteristics.
The 2019 Larkmead Vineyards Tocai Friulano is a blend of 84% Tocai Friulano and 16% Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was made from younger vines behind the winery that were planted in 2013. Shows citrus blossom aromas on the bouquet along with lemongrass, gooseberry, kiwi, lemon/lime zest and as the wine opens further, reveals a sweet floral note including of honeysuckle and jasmine. Very balanced across the palate with a memorable texture that is rounded and creamy starting mid palate through to the finish. As the wine warms up this texture becomes almost saline/briny in its feel. They produce this wine every year but in such limited production that it remains highly allocated to club members – along with being available for tastings at the winery. Only 145 cases were produced in 2019.
Firebell is one of their most popular red wines – paying homage to Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The 2017 Larkmead Vineyards Firebell is a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon; offers slightly savory aromatics including notes of dried herbs along with ripe plum. As the wine opens further shows some dessert spices including clove. Balanced with great acidity – mouth watering. More black fruit then red fruit shows on the palate. Lingers with darker spices including cracked pepper and finer but still very firm and tightly woven tannins in its youth. Noteworthy is the fact that this is the first ever vintage of Firebell that is a blend of only Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The 2003 Larkmead Vineyards 60/40 Blend is very approachable in its youth (we tasted this during one of our earliest visits to Larkmead Vineyards). This wine was made in the style of Pinot Noir – no pump overs, just punch downs during the fermentation process, as a result, experienced 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 red cherry along with nuances of cinnamon on the palate.
The Larkmead Wines are often referred to as the ‘black labels’, showcasing wines that are 100% varietal, are generally harvested from older vines and are from specific soil influenced vineyard blocks. While the Vineyard Wines are blends, harvested from multiple sections throughout their vineyard.
Larkmead produces a 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon each year in tribute to Dr. Olmo. The 2016 Larkmead Vineyards Dr. Olmo is dark ruby in color – sports extremely attractive aromatics of both fruit and some desert spices. Aromas of both plum and blackberry are complemented nicely by darker dessert spices and hints of dried tobacco leaf. We generally use the word, ‘balance’ to describe a wine’s characteristics on the palate – but this bouquet also has balance – with no sharp aromatic edges. The wine’s density is immediately noticeable – plush on the entry but complex and layered mid palate through to the finish. Lingers with chewy tannins that have a noticeable grip. Very well structured. Great acidity. And very ageworthy.
The 2016 Larkmead Vineyards Solari is another 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. Shows aromas of espresso and mocha with nuances of milk chocolate – framed with an underlying core of plum. Also toasted cedar. A full-bodied wine with layers of flavor and structure. Big, ageworthy. No patience to age this beauty? Drink it young and consume with a steak. Offers the most broadly distributed and long lasting tannins of any of the wines we tried during our latest visit. The power of this wine is in both its balance and its complexity.
Also of note: in 2008 a time capsule was buried next to the vineyards in front of the winery commemorating Larkmead’s 125th anniversary. One of our visits was soon after this capsule was buried (time capsules tend to be forgotten quickly but for some reason we always think of this whenever we visit the winery).
This capsule will be dug up and opened in 2028, perhaps it should be unearthed on the day the summer Olympics begin in Los Angeles for the third time. Photos, maps some “future” predictions and of course wine bottles were included in the capsule. We hope Larkmead Vineyards will invite us to the unearthing of this capsule.
For more information, to schedule an appointment, to join their mailing list or wine club called the Larkmead Firebelle Society, visit: www.larkmead.com