Somerston Wine Co is a major vineyard project not quite yet on the Napa radar (but will be once everything is ramped up and running). It is owned by real estate developer Allan Chapman & partners – Allan’s family traces their business roots back to 1854 in England operating clipper ships and then later cargo ships but have since diversified their business interests – Somerston. The vineyards are located in eastern Napa County in the hills ranging in elevation from about 850 up to 2400 feet. We initially visited about 18 months after this project’s inception and already major vineyard restoration and replanting had occurred. The entire property is huge and combines the 1000 acre Lynch Valley Ranch with the 660 acre Priest Vineyard. A range of hills separates the two valleys.
As of press time the total vineyard acreage is about 280 acres. As a new winery with this much planted acreage, they are certainly not using all the fruit for themselves. Several well known Napa wineries have been purchasing fruit including Viader, Pahlmeyer, Orin Swift and Duckhorn among several others. This is a great thing for Somerston; it is a testament to the excellent quality of fruit coming out of these vineyards. Their primary vineyard manager lives on site and grew up in the area and has been managing the vineyards for a number of years. The original grape vines on site date from the 1970’s and much of the vineyards are planted to Bordeaux and Rhone varietals.
Craig Becker is the winemaker and founding member; he cut his teeth in the Napa wine industry by initially working for Robert Mondavi and then Spring Mountain. Today he focuses on consulting for a number of other high end clients many of which concentrate on hillside grown fruit such as Somerston. You might say Craig’s specialty is working with hillside grown fruit.
Three distinct labels are found under the main Somerston brand; the Somerston which features high end wines, usually from single vineyard sources, Priest Ranch which features red wines only, available at a mid price point (this is a resurrected label as we were shown a 1976 vintage with the same name – different winery), and lastly their Highflyer label which sources from vineyards throughout California. The Highflyer was originally Craig’s label (with a partner), called Michael Austin but is now part of Somerston. Craig is a pilot and has taken a number of trips in his private plane to other California vineyards from Santa Barbara to Lodi. He always spots the vineyards from the air, hence the clever name of the label. The artwork is often whimsical and may change from vintage to vintage. As of press time select wines from all three labels are available.
We tried the 2005 Highflyer “bad habit” sourced from the Priest Ranch. Lookout for Rhone Varietals making a name for this vineyard in the coming years. There are not many high end Rhone producing vineyards in Napa County and this is one of them. The label depicts the removal of a Nuns habit…Nice! This is an interesting blend you won’t often find in the Napa wine scene with Petite Sirah, Syrah and a touch of Grenache. This is a very dark wine (unfiltered) – thank you Petite Sirah for your contribution in color there.
The Grenache is a nice addition as it helps smooth out the tannins on the finish. This is a wine rich in aroma with nice dark chocolate on the nose and a bit of leather. It is oh so juicy (huge mouth feel) with mouth watering flavors that fill your entire palate and then some. A mix of blackberry and black licorice leads to a well structured finish.
For a change of pace try the 2005 Clements Hills Viognier. This is sourced from Lodi and no, not all of Lodi is flat. This wine is unfiltered, sees no malolactic fermentation and was aged in neutral oak. The nose is floral with hints of pineapple and citrus blossom. It is crisp with lively acidity and nice tangerine, apricot and caramel flavors show on the palate. The finish is viscous and clean with just a trace of mineralities. As with Craig’s other wines this one is very well balanced. Visits to the ranch will be on an appointment only basis, starting in late 2010 when their ranch tasting room opens.
A visit here is a unique opportunity to see an “older” Napa with no crowds, no noise, no traffic, no huge wineries, really a very relaxing scenic place to visit and taste wine. A pond is already on site with a peninsula leading to a sit down area overlooking the hills and water. Think Jade Lake at Chateau Montelena but without the red bridges and visitors. Plans are in place for caves which will open up with great views of the pond. In addition, the existing building has undergone major renovation and is now a state-of-the art winery and tasting facility. Visit: www.somerstonwineco.com and also: www.priestranchwines.com
Note: Somerston also maintains a tasting room in the south part of the town of Yountville. This tasting room is across from the Villagio Inn & Spa.