Priest Ranch Wines is located in Yountville, directly across from Hotel Villagio. This spacious “tasting center” blends sophistication with “ranch” ruggedness. Walk into the tasting room and be greeted by a large thick oak table. This piece of wood is from their ranch in the hills of eastern Napa County. Wood from the ranch was used throughout the inside of the building including the floor.
Parking is curbside, on either side of Washington Street – Priest Ranch also maintains a small parking lot in the back of the building. Nevertheless, regardless of whether the fireplace is roaring – the tasting room is warm and inviting which says as much for the very hospitable and down to earth staff as it does for the actual layout of the interior.
Several experiences are offered for visitors – aside from their standard walk-in tastings including the Food & Wine Pairing experience, all other experiences are available by appointment only including for their private group tastings (minimum of 6 people required). Many tastings are at the large oak table or alternatively held in their relaxing plush seats in a side room. Their tasting menus are held together by an actual vine cutting – nice touch there.
A very unique offering is the Bacon & Wine Experience pairing five wines with five different cuts of bacon – this offering changes seasonally depending on current releases. Also chocolate lovers take note – they offer a Chocolate and Wine Pairing. And Priest Ranch produces some fairly unique for the Napa Valley wines including Grenache Blanc and a Brut Rosé of Syrah.
Priest Ranch was named after Joshua James Priest who came to California seeking his fortune during the gold rush in 1849. Twenty years later he settled in this part of the Napa Valley (called Soda Valley) by purchasing 638 acres. This land was originally part of the 8,000+ acre Rancho Catacula land grant, owned by Joseph Chiles (namesake of the Chiles Valley AVA). Joshua used parts of the property for agriculture and running livestock. The first grape vines on Priest Ranch were planted in 1972 and the first vines on the original Elder Valley Ranch were planted in the 1940s. None of these original plantings still exist.
The building that houses the tasting room (and Protea Restaurant next door) along with the ranch is owned by Allan Chapman and his wife Kathleen. Allan works in telecommunications and is a real estate developer – while searching in the Napa Valley for a place to build homes he discovered the 660 acre Priest Ranch and purchased the property in 2004. About 1.5 years later, he discovered one of his neighbors was selling a sizable adjoining parcel, the 955 acre Elder Valley Ranch also known as the Lynch Valley Ranch. Allan and Kathleen purchased this property and combined the two ranches – today known as the Somerston Ranch.
The ranch sold fruit for the past 35+ years to renowned vintners including David Ramey and to well-regarded Napa wineries Caymus and Viader.
Allan’s family traces their business roots back to 1854 in England operating clipper ships and then later merchant/cargo ships and in 1968 diversified their business interests into real estate and property development. By 1975 the company was no longer in the business of shipping. The company is the Somerston Group and Allan is their Executive Director. A subsidiary of Somerston Group is Walnut Creek based Cambay Group (established in 1990) – which has overseen numerous real estate development projects including the epic in scope River Islands at Lathrop project, a planned community south of Stockton, Windemere in San Ramon and several other small projects in the Sacramento area.
Craig Becker (who we originally met with for this review at both the tasting room and out at the ranch) is the winemaker and a founding partner; raised in Long Beach he eventually came to northern California to attend Santa Rosa Junior College before attending the University of California Davis. Before graduating from UC Davis he began his career in the Napa Valley by working for Robert Mondavi Winery in 1996. After graduating UC Davis in 1997 he began working at Spring Mountain Vineyards where he was promoted to winemaker at age 23.
In 1999 he began his own vineyard consulting business – which grew to 10 clients by 2004. Today he makes wine for a handful of clients. He has also consulted for clients in California’s central coast (the commute was helped in part because Craig is a private pilot). Craig’s focus is on hillside grown single-vineyard produced wines striving to showcase the particular vineyard site or block as well as the varietal characteristics of the wine.
After Allan had launched both Priest Ranch and Somerston Wines – he met Craig through Craig’s consulting company. Craig has played an instrumental role in both brands over the years including an integral role in the vineyard development at Somerston Ranch.
While the focus of the tasting room is on Priest Ranch wines wines from their other brand, Somerston can also be tasted at the their Yountville tasting room.
The 2018 Priest Ranch Sauvignon Blanc was entirely fermented in stainless steel drums – letting indigenous yeast control the entire primary fermentation. This wine saw no malolactic fermentation and was aged on the lees for a short period. It is the color of recently dried straw. Initially offers freshly cut grass, lime and mineralities – the bouquet is zesty and vibrant with aromatics that quickly envelop the glass. As the wine opens, the bouquet becomes ‘sweeter’ with tropical nuances including aromas of honeysuckle and citrus blossom. The palate is equally as lively – showing flavors of mandarin and Gravenstein apple. Offers a creaminess of texture across the palate – complemented nicely by bright but not bracing acidity. The finish is clean showing both fruit and then lingering with a hint of vanilla spice. A rich and very flavorful showing.
The 2017 Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc. Now this is a variety one simply does not find often in the world famous Napa Valley (Kenefick Ranch also grows some). But Priest Ranch grows a block that is slightly less then 3 acres. Originally from northeastern Spain it also is grown in the Rhône region in France. Directly related to Grenache – it may have resulted from a mutation. This wine was also fermented entirely using indigenous yeasts; it was left on its lees for five months prior to bottling, being stirred twice weekly. The wine is the color of butter in the glass; it offers a greener raciness on the bouquet with aromas of pine branch, apple and citrus zest. With that said, it doesn’t smell ‘green’. Clean across the palate with decent acidity and flavors of red and green apple. Lingers with notes of Asian pear and a very subtle hint of fennel sweetness.
The 2010 Priest Ranch Dessert Wine (bottled in a stout 500ml bottle) is a blend of port varietals including Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Souzao. Fermented using indigenous yeasts. Fortified with brandy and then aged for 7 years in neutral French oak barrels before bottling. No fining, no filtering. Dark ruby in the glass with dense opacity. Intense aromatics showcasing ripe fruit and sweetness including boysenberry and plum along with toasted caramel, toffee, cloves and brown chocolate. Shows a lovely tension across the palate – smooth and supple the texture, fruit, acid and sugar hang on the palate in one harmonious crescendo. A hint of toasted cedar and a melange of other desert spices linger on the finish. Long lasting it is clean from start to finish with well integrated tannins. Dessert wine lovers will want to get a hold of this beauty.
Highflyer (while no longer produced) was Craig’s own wine brand and was made from vineyards throughout California. Highflyer was originally a label in another wine brand called Michael Austin, a partnership between Craig and his friend Patrick McNeil. The name is a result of Craig being a licensed pilot; he would often fly in his private plane to select California vineyards ranging from Santa Barbara to Lodi.
The 2008 Highflyer Pinot Noir was sourced from the “Doctor’s Vineyard” in in the Santa Lucia Highlands. This wine is like drinking candy or velvet (if one could drink velvet). The bouquet has nice notes of perfume – elegant fruit aromas including raspberry and candied fruit invite one to try the wine. The wine is soft on the palate, rounded and packed with delicate flavors including raspberry, and cherry. The finish is clean and very quick.
The 2008 Somerston Sauvignon Blanc is decidedly tropical on the bouquet with rich and expressive aromatics including honeysuckle and pineapple. This is a crisp clean version of this varietal with some roundness on the mouth feel. This is probably due to the fact that this wine saw some oak during its aging. The finish is clean and lively with some nice zest. This is a higher alcohol Sauvignon Blanc, clocking in at 14 percent.
The 2007 Somerston Petite Sirah is a dark inky wine, which is common with this varietal. The nose is intriguing, notes of plum and dark liqueur show. Surprisingly the attack on the palate is soft and light but a lusciousness shows up about mid palate and the finish is actually very well structured with meaty integrated tannins. This is a luscious wine, but not too rich. There are flavors of dark ripe blackberry and black cherry with just a hint of mocha.
Protea Restaurant, Yountville
Notes & photos from our visit for a meal coming later in 2020.
For more information or to join one of their membership clubs, visit: www.priestranchwines.com and view our extensive review of Somerston Ranch, also listed on this website.