Quintessa Winery is an architecturally intriguing winery located on the west side of the Silverado Trail just north of Rutherford Cross Road. The estate encompasses 280 acres; the winery was founded in 1989 by well-known Chilean vintners Agustin Huneeus and his wife Valeria. It was Valeria who first discovered this site. Quintessa is part of a winery/brand portfolio owned by Huneeus Vintners including Illumination (a very limited production Sauvignon Blanc), Napa Valley based Faust Vineyard (see our separate review on this site), Flowers Vineyards & Winery (a Sonoma County based winery), Leviathan, a Napa Valley brand founded by winemaker Andy Erickson and Willamette Valley based Benton-Lane Winery.
Both Agustin and Valeria were born in Chile and are wine industry veterans. Valeria is a microbiologist and viticulturist and was the one who originally discovered the land for sale that is now home to Quintessa. Agustin inherited a fishing business from his father in his 20s – but an opportunity soon presented itself to invest in Vina Concha Y Toro – a small winery at the time that he ultimately helped build into Chile’s largest producer. By age 27 in 1960, Agustin was the CEO of Concha y Toro. In the early 1970’s he worked at Seagram, beginning with Seagram Argentina and within a few years, overseeing their worldwide operations from New York.
Later he became involved in a remarkable number of wine ventures including Noble Vineyard, Concannon in Livermore, Franciscan Estate and Flowers Winery; in 1999 he founded Huneeus Vintners (owns Quintessa among other brands and properties). They had a controlling interest in Veramonte Estate since the early 1990s – near the town of Casablanca (about an hour west of Santiago) until selling this in 2016 – although they still own more then 6,000 acres in the region. Agustin and Valeria’s son Agustin Francisco oversaw their family’s wine holdings until 2019.
Quintessa specializes in one premium Cabernet Sauvignon each vintage; this wine is reflective of their great attention to detail in the vineyards as well as with the wine making. Their motto is “fine wine is a reflection of place” and their wines reflect the specific terroir of their property. This was one of the last large “virgin” Napa Valley floor properties available at the time of purchase in 1989; remarkably it was never planted to grapes. The site is located in the Rutherford appellation and is a mix of both hillside and valley floor vineyards. Their first commercially released vintage was from 1994.
At Quintessa, attention to producing exceptional wines start in the vineyards but are also rooted in the details of their operations – both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Understanding the various soil profiles on the estate are paramount and in part has involved using Electro-conductivity – operated by Chilean based soils expert Dr. Pedro Parra, dubbed Dr. Terroir (who also operates his namesake winery in Chile); he mapped the entire vineyard portion of the estate identifying individual soil variations and also digging soil pits to continue to better understand the property.
Their vineyards are both organically farmed (certified CCOF) and are also overseen using bio-dynamic practices. This involves several primary factors; building the soil’s health organically using special natural compost, introducing sheep into the vineyards in the Spring to both ‘mow’ the grass and increase soil fertility, philosophically farm (prune and harvest based on phases of the moon and planets) and control pests and diseases without chemicals (implementing cover crops and using plants which attract beneficial insects). Their approach is holistic; it is a gentle farming philosophy that embraces being one with the land.
The estate used to be called the Snowball Ranch named after a former owner Robert Young (R.Y.) Snowball and his wife Amelia (incidentally both Robert and Amelia died at age 51 in 1891 only a couple of months apart). A Napa Register article dated October 2, 1885 (and the same article from the Napa Weekly Journal, the day before) references in a column called “up valley activities” active winemaking occurring in a 40×50 foot wine cellar built in about a week by R.Y. Young on his property on the “east side”. A separate article also references Young owning his own grapes but does not say which property they are from.
An article in the St. Helena Star on November 20, 1885 lists out the total production of cellars organized by location in the valley. In this article, in the “Below St. Helena” category but not in the Rutherford category the list notes that Young’s cellar produced 11,000 gallons of wine. Three years later an article in the Napa Weekly Journal from November 29, 1888 indicates Young shipped his finest Burgundy to Lord Sackville-West, the British Ambassador to the United States at the time. And by 1895 what was then referred to as Snowball Cellars in an article in the St. Helena Star dated September 13, 1895 describes the sale of the cooperage with everything sold for $400.
NOTE: More research is needed here as these various articles do not indicate which property Snowball’s cellar was located on – and until we have definitive information, there is the possibility his cellar was located on what is now the Quintessa property.
The property subsequently had several other owners including Thomas Swortfiguer (who was elected mayor of St. Helena in 1916 and owned a number of properties in the Napa Valley) – we have seen the property also called the Swortfiguer Ranch. And later Bert Rossi, who in 1929 purchased the property from Swortfiguer and in 1939 sold the ranch to Antonio ‘Tony’ Panetta (born in Italy), who operated the ranch as a stock farm for several years (we also saw one reference indicating when he purchased the property he planned on raising thoroughbred horses for several years). Strangely, an August article from this same year references the Crooks (Amanda, Jonathan) as being the owners of Snowball Ranch (possibly partners of Panettas in the ranch). The sale of the ranch from Panetta to George Mardikian was announced in early March 1944.
Mardikian was truly a fascinating individual, Armenian-American but born in what is now Turkey. After suffering severe hardships and persecution in Armenia he immigrated to the United States in 1922 and came almost immediately to San Francisco across the country by train – certainly not an easy proposition since he spoke almost no English and was low on funds upon his arrival.After 8 years of working in restaurants he moved to Fresno where an already sizable Armenian community existed and opened a lunch spot called Omar Khayyam. Mardikian played a prominent role in introducing a number of Middle Eastern foods to the American palate; he later operated another Omar Khayyam restaurant prominently located on the corner at 200 Powell Street in San Francisco until the mid 1980s when it burned down due to a fire. He was also a food consultant to the US Army from from 1942 to 1954 and is credited for improving the quality of army rations as noted by commendations from several US presidents including Herbert Hoover, Harry S Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. During his time as a food consultant he made several trips to Europe and Asia working in conjunction with US Army cooks.
He was an ongoing champion for homeless Armenians around the world – helping find up to 5,000 of his former fellow countrymen homes in select countries. For his work, primarily centered around food, he eventually was awarded a medal of freedom from the US government, the highest honor bestowed upon civilians. He was a patron of the Boy Scouts. And he was an author having written Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s and his autobiography Song of America.
Mardikian called his Napa property, El Rancho Silverado.
While we haven’t been able to locate any records of the property having been planted to grapes before, a Napa Journal article from December 23, 1956 references Mardikian’s experiments in agriculture and animal husbandry on the property with crops producing food for his restaurant in San Francisco including alfalfa, strawberries, Armenian peppers, fruit trees and sheep and cattle (during the Rossi ownership, cattle were also living on the property). This same article also refers to entertaining President Herbert Hoover on the ranch (one of his good friends).
Mardikian’s son Haig (who we spoke with) remembers his father had no interest in planting grapes on the property – but from time to time Haig broached the topic about possibly putting planting vineyards. However, grapes were never planted on site during the Mardikian ownership.
The gorgeous lake that still exists was built on the property in the 1950s during the Mardikian ownership – George called it Lake Naz, named after his wife Nazely; Haig remembers his father telling his mother that ‘he put her on the map’. Haig also remembers summers swimming in the lake and even water skiing. Today this body of water is called Dragon’s Lake.
A Napa valley Register article from November 21, 1960 references a number of trees planted on the property above the lake in honor of Mardikian’s contributions to the Boy Scouts of America – the trees being gifts from his friend Herbert Hoover and President at that time, Dwight Eisenhower. And Mardikian promoted the Napa Valley a number of times through his writings and through select events including events held in the valley.
The property produced a legal case in 1952 relating to Mardikian’s prized bull Prince Domino Q III. The neighbors bordering their property just west of the Napa River accused Mardikian’s bull of wandering across the river to their property and impregnating some of their cows. They later sued Mardikian – however Mardikian’s foreman at the time, was able to capture on film, photographs of what really happened. The neighboring cows had actually wandered east across the Napa River onto Mardikian’s property enticing Prince Domino Q III. As a result, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. Haig recalls his son-in-law (now a lawyer) mentioning that he had studied this particular case while attending law school – some 4 decades later.
And after his family sold the property in 1989, Haig looked for property in Napa Valley for two years. Unable to find a piece of property similar to his family’s ranch he looked outside of the Napa Valley for 5 more years until discovering a beautiful 30 acre hillside parcel above the community of Freestone in neighboring Sonoma County which he purchased from the prior owner, former congressman Doug Bosco. Visualizing the potential of the site for grapes he took some classes through UC Davis focusing on viticulture. However he soon realized that it might make most sense to find a winery partner – he interviewed a number of prominent vintners and ultimately settled upon Hess Collection who had the resources at the time to develop part of his property to a vineyard. They planted Pinot Noir and initially produced a Hess Collection Mardikian Estate Pinot Noir – later a MacPhail Vineyard Mardikian Estate Pinot Noir (also owned by Hess Collection) and more recently, these grapes are again bottled under a Hess Collection Mardikian Estate Pinot Noir.
Mardikian Mementos (Author’s personal collection)
The winery was designed by the San Francisco based Walker Warner Architectural firm; it is visually appealing from the outside and is difficult for first time visitor to get a feel for the fairly sizable work-space within the building. The winery itself is set back inside the hillside; ‘unobtrusive’ is a good word to describe how well Quintessa fits into the surrounding landscape.
After checking in, visitors will typically begin tours with a walk up the hill behind the winery to an overlook offering excellent views of the valley floor in the distance, many of their vineyards and the large pond below which dates from the 1930’s.
A visit from the top of Dragon’s Hill behind the winery is a window into a part of Napa that few see despite all the daily traffic on the Silverado Trail that passes by their driveway. It is truly a peaceful scene – a rare view of a bucolic part of the valley with perfectly groomed vineyards lining the rolling hills and the quieting influence of the picturesque lake below.
Those who opt for the Quintessential Quintessa experience will have their tasting in one of the glass pavilions (designed by Maca of Maca Huneeus Design, Agustin Huneeus Jr’s wife) which overlook this part of their property. From here you can walk into the edge of one of the vineyards. One of these glass pavilions was featured in a scene from the movie, Wine Country.
Next is a tour of the 17,000 square foot wine caves and a visit to the actual winery facility. Visitors who signed up for the Estate Tasting will taste at their own private table located against the stone interior of the building; glass skylights are built into the roof so during the day, there is always ambient light shining into the room. The actual sit down wine tasting is in an intimate room – only 5 or 6 small tables are available. Your personal wine guide will help curate your experience and discuss in detail each of the wines and how they are made.
Note the large steel riveted box that sits next to the elevator in the winery. When Quintessa finished the winery they invited many well-known Napa winemakers to bring some of their best vintages of wine. Notables like Araujo Estate (now Eisele Vineyard), Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Shafer Vineyards and many others brought their wine and sealed it inside this climate controlled steel box. This will be opened in 2051 and will be donated to the Premier Napa Valley wine auction which at that time will be in its 54th year (Premiere Napa Valley began in 1997). Whoever runs up the winning bid on this item is going to be very pleased indeed…and for something this rare and historical, it is going to be a sizable bid. All the signatures of the owners and winemakers who contributed wine are listed on a plaque above the box.
Wondering what those raised square boxes are that sit on top of the roof located near the parking area? Those “boxes” actually open and are used during harvest for dropping the grapes below to the actual tanks.
Well-regarded French wine consultant Michel Roland has consulted for Quintessa in the past. When he was in town for their blending decisions, we were told over 100 glasses were poured individually for him, the Huneeus family and their winemaker (over 300 glasses of wine in the same room) – each glass representing different vineyard blocks and parts of the property. Fortunately your sit down tasting is not this complex. Two main vineyard block samples are provided so that you can taste some of the individual components that make up the final blend and then you will taste the current vintage.
The winery chef creates mini-culinary nirvana moments – offering delicious bites hand picked to be paired with each wine. During one visit, we tried grass fed New York steak with a green tarragon salsa and truffle scented potato and spring vegetable salad. Other visitors were speaking highly of the rosemary cayenne pepper coated cashew nuts. Reserve well in advance for busy summer and weekend tastings.
The 2005 Quintessa Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal). Initially the aromas are very earthy, almost gravelly – think of the smell of dust after the first rain…there is a reason why “Rutherford Dust” has its own lexicon in the vocabulary of the Napa Valley and it was this particular wine in which we first noticed this ‘dust’ characteristic. Hints of tobacco and smoke round out the nose and as the wine opens some of these earthy aromas dissipate and reveal layers of beautiful fruit. Notes of blackberry on the nose lead to a layered palate of blackberry, plum and cherry. This elegant wine is wonderfully balanced and structured with pleasing supple finish.
Sauvignon Blanc for their Illumination wine was planted at Quintessa in 2002 (their first vintage was in 2006). This is a carefully crafted wine – the winemaking team selects from five different types of fermentation vessels including new and neutral French oak, acacia barrels, stainless steel barrels and concrete eggs and utilizes several Sauvignon Blanc clones as well as Sémillon. Grapes come from both the Quintessa property as well as in neighboring Sonoma County.
Tasting notes of current releases coming as soon as possible.
In 2020 for the first time in their history, Quintessa introduced a Decade Release program, taking advantage of releasing a limited number of bottles that were held in their library ten years prior. The Decade Release offerings are only be available for years that are deemed extra ageworthy and are showing well 10 years post their vintage date.
Vineyard Circle membership provides select access and discounts to the other wineries/brands within the Huneeus Vintners portfolio including discounts on wine, complimentary tastings at their other properties and invites to member only events. Several categories of membership are available including Dragon, Corona and Mesa. For more information, to request a tasting, and or to join of their Vineyard Circle Member options, visit: www.quintessa.com
Quintessa Estate Property, EXTERIOR
Quintessa Estate Property, INTERIOR
Benton-Lane Winery, Willamette Valley OR
Benton-Lane Winery is located about 25 minutes due south of Corvalis, Oregon. The winery has several Napa Valley connections. It was founded by Steve and Carol Girard (the founders of Girard Winery originally located on site of what is now Rudd Winery). And Napa vinter, Carl Doumani (Stags’ Leap Winery, Quixote) was also involved in the early ownership. The Girard’s moved to Oregon to focus on Pinot Noir and built and operated Benton-Lane Winery (first vintage 1992, the winery building was completed in 1997) – before selling in early 2018 Huneeus Vintners. Steve Girard and Augustin Huneeus Sr. are long time friends.
The property is over 1,800 acres of which 142 acres are planted to vines including Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. The tasting room is open year round with both bar and seated tasting indoors and weather permitting, outside seating in a cozy patio with views looking east.
Flowers Winery, Sonoma County
Flowers Winery was founded in 1991 by Joan and Walt Flowers (not to be confused with Joan and Walt Teachworth, another winery couple who founded a winery in neighboring Napa Valley). The Flowers come from a nursery business in Pennsylvania – during research and seed buying trips to California they began to explore their interest in cooler weather varieties, namely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They are vineyard pioneers along the edges of some of Sonoma County’s most rugged coastline; they purchased their first property in 1991 – Camp Meeting Ridge and their second property Sea View Ridge in 1998. Neither site was planted to vines at the time of their purchases.
This visually dramatic coastline is strongly influenced by the maritime conditions and the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean. Elevation is an extremely important factor for growing grapes in this part of Sonoma County (the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, northwest of Jenner) – both their vineyards are planted above 1,000 feet with the high point nearly 1,900 feet. The vineyards are often above the low lying fog that hangs near the ocean and their sites experience significantly more sunshine and warmer temperatures then the lower elevations. The focus of their production is on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; they also produce a still wine bottling of Pinot Meunier (often used in sparkling wines). This is prime terroir for these varieties; other premium producers with vineyards in their ‘neighborhood’ include Hirsch, Marcassin and Peter Michael. In addition to their estate vineyards, Flowers Winery also sources fruit from select growers.
Joan and Walt sold the winery to Huneeus Vintners in 2009. In 2016 Huneeus Vintners purchased a third vineyard with an existing winery at 4035 Westside Road (formerly home to C Donatiello Winery and VML Winery) located about an hour and 10 minute drive from their vineyards (about 30 miles). This is certainly in a much more accessible location for visitors. The House of Flowers, as it is called, is located in Dry Creek Valley only about a 7 minute drive from downtown Healdsburg. The simple, yet elegant and cozy interior décor was overseen by San Francisco based Maca Huneeus Design (Maca is married to Augustin Huneeus Jr.). One of the highlights of the interior décor is a 2,000 pound massive thick cross section of a black walnut tree which used to grow in California’s Central Valley (which because of its weight had to be lowered in position by a crane).
Plenty of outdoor seating is also available including several intimate perches looking east with excellent views across parts of the Dry Creek Valley and of Mt. St. Helena in the far distance.
Visitors can taste by walk-ins (if space is available) or by appointment – reservations are required for the full tasting experience which includes small bites prepared by their in-house chef. Arriving guests will receive a welcome wine and then proceed to their tasting – which usually includes both several Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. All their wines are fermented using non-inoculated yeasts (indigenous). For those who haven’t tried many Chardonnays and generally admit they don’t enjoy wines from this variety, the Flowers Chardonnays might well change your perception 🙂