Tres Sabores is a small certified organic winery located 5 minutes from busy Highway 29 (south of St. Helena). Once you pull onto their gravel driveway and arrive on site, it feels like a different world; it is noticeably quiet – a corner of Napa tucked away against the edge of the Mayacamas mountains surrounded by vineyards and native vegetation growing on the nearby hillsides. A visit here feels nothing like the crowded atmosphere one often finds along the “wine strip”, a section of Highway 29 delineated colloquially by the wineries between the towns of Yountville and St. Helena.
Tres Sabores is owned by Julie Johnson; while she has several employees, she sometimes conducts the walking tours among her vineyards and occasionally helps host the tastings. Tastings during the busy summer and fall months are often hosted simultaneously with several groups.
Julie purchased the property in 1987 and in 1991 became Napa’s first certified organic winery/vineyard (a 3+ year process that culminates with a CCOF certification). However Julie’s first commercial release was from the 1999 vintage – fruit from this vineyard went into prior vintages of a Frog’s Leap Zinfandel. The property is 35 acres, of which 13 are planted to vine – including 10 to Zinfandel (the variety that Tres Sabores is most known for). The remaining vineyard acreage is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah with the original vines on site planted in 1971 (still on AXR-1 rootstock, but as of now not yet infected with phyloxxera). The vines are dry farmed. The property is in the Rutherford appellation and shares a property line with Inglenook Vineyards. Tres Sabores also purchases fruit from other select vineyards.
Julie first visited the Napa Valley in the 1960s as a child – returning in the 1970s to explore the region further and by 1980 had moved to the valley. Her previous career as as a public health nurse. In 1981 Julie along with John Williams, and partners Larry Turley, founded Frog’s Leap Winery. And in 1990 along with vintner Michaela Rodeno (see our review of Villa Ragazzi Wines) founded Women for WineSense, a now national organization with select chapters across the country devoted to furthering education, creating networking opportunities for those in the wine industry and also select chapters contributing scholarships to women to further their education.
Tres Sabores translates to “three flavors” in Spanish, a name Julie chose to represent the terroir (site characteristics), the artisan influence (winemaker) and the variety (type of grape). And it also refers to the three well-respected consulting winemakers (Rudy Zuidema, Ken Bernards and Karen Culler) that Julie initially hired to make three separate Zinfandel based wines from her vineyard.
The initial wines made by these winemakers were labeled with three separate designs that Julie was inspired by after seeing their shapes on pottery during a visit to a pre-Columbian museum just outside of Quito in Ecuador (in 1998). When she returned to the Napa Valley she had one of her friends create three bowls using these ancient designs (now displayed inside the house next to their barrel room). Today Julie shares the winemaking duties with her son Rory (who also makes his own wine here, Calder Cellars).
We enjoyed the 2005 Rutherford Zinfandel as we walked through the Zinfandel rows of grapes while Julie explained the natural farming techniques that she uses on the property. She was one of the earliest of the modern day vintners in the Napa Valley to implement organic farming practices. Julie only harvests sections of the vineyard that are fully ripe – and some years differences in harvesting the Zinfandel alone can differ up to 3 weeks.
The 2005 Zinfandel is a delicious vintage with ripe Zinfandel aromas followed by spicy white and black pepper notes generously framed by plenty of fruit.
The Tres Sabores 2005 Rutherford Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon is also delicious and a fine representation of her property. Appealing aromatics lead to delicious flavors anchored by a very silky smooth mouth feel. The label draws one’s eye quickly to the bottle; it is based off of lithograph that Julie purchased while in London.
What has to be one of the Napa Valley’s most eclectic labels is the label for the Tres Sabores rosé, “Ingrid & Julia”, – it is a colorful image modeled after tie-dye duct tape! Yes, there is such a product. And this wine is named after two rose bushes growing on the property planted in tribute to Ingrid Bergman & Julia Child. The 2017 vintage is a blend of Petite Sirah (25% from a Calistoga vineyard) and Zinfandel (75% estate) made from an earlier pick prior to their primary harvest. Noticeably orangish salmon in color shows aromas of citrus (namely grapefruit), raspberry and mineral nuances. A pleasing texture on the palate – rounded with some weight but balanced nicely by refreshing acidity. Some of the mineral notes on the bouquet also show on the palate. Would most likely pair well with a number of Thai spicy dishes.
The 2015 Tres Sabores Estate Zinfandel (often harvested multiple times) is aged with a careful and judicious use of oak, so that the oak characteristics do not dominate the varietal characteristics. The wine is savory on the palate – initially showing a darker spice element including black pepper and a smokiness along with cocoa powder and cedar box. As the wine breathes the fruit begins to dominate including aromas of raspberry. Certainly not a jammy fruit forward wine as is often the case with California wines made from this variety. Very balanced on the palate with excellent acidity and well-integrated finer grained tannins.
For a short while, Julie also made a “Fire-Roasted” Zinfandel Marinade. The Tres Sabores “Porque No?” Marinade (which means Why Not, in Spanish) is a “have lemons, make lemonade story”. In 2005, Julie stored 2000 cases of wine in a Vallejo warehouse which was destroyed by arson that same year. For a small producer, 2000 cases is a significant amount of wine to lose. Most vintners would have merely cut their losses and moved on or even gone out of business – but not Julie. The marinade was a result of creatively producing a useful product out of destroyed wine.
In the years following this devastating fire, we saw stacks of these available just inside the Oakville Grocery in Oakville as well as in other boutique shops around the valley.
Porque No is a very unique blend, affordably priced and a good every day value to quality drinking wine. They call this their “party in a bottle” wine. The blend changes each year, but Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon are the dominant varieties with sometimes a tiny percentage of Petit Verdot added.
In addition to wine, Julie also makes olive oil from the 40+ olive trees that grow on the property. Visitors to the property will certainly notice some of the over 200 pomegranate trees growing here. And in a very unique offering for a Napa based winery, Tres Sabores produces a tasty pomegranate vinaigrette (for sale at the winery).
Weather permitting guests will taste outside either under the olive groves (some of the older olive trees in all of the Napa Valley) where there are great views of all the grape rows spread out before you or in another location next to the vineyard. And a visit here is not only about the wine but also about the garden which provides seasonal produce includes fruits and vegetables. And perhaps you will make a few new friends – Julie owns several Golden Retrievers who based on our several visits to the property, always enjoy meeting guests.
Tours also bring guests to the ‘back’ of the property including a stop in front of the Wedding Tree (dates from around 1660) and is where Julie and her husband John were married. They both maintain an extensive garden using compost from grape pomace and visitors will walk among the raised vegetable beds and take a peek into the cages where a number of their farm animals are housed including sheep and guinea fowl. And if around lunch time and you would like to eat here, let Tres Sabores know at the time of your reservation so they can plan accordingly.
Tres Sabores is kid and pet friendly. Julie even created a scavenger hunt for children – focusing on the natural elements found on the property.
Total production each year is about 4,000 cases. For more information, to schedule an appointment or to join the appropriately named Sabor wine club (some of the wines produced are only available to club members), visit: www.tressabores.com