Vineyard 29 is located a few miles north of the town of St. Helena in the western foothills of the Mayacamas mountains with an address that mimics the name of the winery (2929 St. Helena Highway North). This “bench land” is some of the most coveted terroir in this particular part of the valley; Grace Family Vineyards are immediate neighbors and several other premium vineyard sites are also located nearby including Colgin’s Tychson Hill property.
The original founders of Vineyard 29, Teresa Norton and Tom Paine moved to the Napa Valley in 1989 to ‘retire’. Both worked for Hewitt Associates – Tom was one of the early partners in the company, now AON Hewitt – a major globally distributed human resources and consulting company. Influenced by their vintner neighbors, Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards – they decided to plant their small vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon from Dick’s vineyard. The original Vineyard 29 vineyard was only 3 acres – planted by David Abreu in 1989. These cuttings are referred to as the Grace Clone of Cabernet Sauvignon – but previously originated from the Bosche Vineyard (Freemark Abbey).
Their first vintage was in 1992. Ready to retire for real, Teresa and Tom sold Vineyard 29 to Chuck & Anne McMinn in 2000 who have since expanded both their vineyard footprint, vineyard land (through several purchases in this immediate part of the valley) and an increase in their overall production. In addition to the original small block of Cabernet Sauvignon still growing on the estate vineyard, even smaller plantings of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc were later added.
The nearby Aida Vineyard (just to the north of the winery) spans from the edge of the valley floor on the west side – to the east bordered by the Napa River. This site has been planted since the 1920s and today is home for their old-vine Zinfandel and several other much newer plantings of select Bordeaux red varieties.
It is interesting to note that the first seven vintages produced from Vineyard 29 were actually crafted next door in the small Grace Family Winery and then for several years at Miner Family. The winery itself was completed in time for the 2002 harvest.
Vineyard 29 is one of the leading Napa Valley winery users of technology both in the vineyards and in the winery. This makes sense when one takes into account Chuck’s background in the telecommunications industry. He was Chairman for Covad Communications, an Internet Service Provider who its their peak serviced over 500,000 customers (Covad operated from 1996 through 2010). Chuck has spared no expense in their operations, incorporating cutting edge technology and innovation.
One of his mottos which originally comes from Intel is “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. A small control room within the winery measures conditions in the vineyards, the caves and the winery (temperature, humidity, soil moisture content ETC). Moisture probes are placed throughout the vineyards; these instruments record readings up to 6 feet below the soil surface and provide information for when to water and amounts of water needed. Special instruments are even installed on select vines to measure how much water runs through the vines throughout the day and night.
Attention to detail at Vineyard 29 is paramount – Chuck indicates, “jobs here can take up to 10x as long as at other area wineries”. Their focus is on quality and producing limited production wines. Rather than harvesting grapes in large containers, they harvest grapes into small 40 pound boxes. Gentle handling is priority throughout harvest; grapes begin fermentation as soon as they are crushed. Vineyard 29’s post picking efforts result in fermentation that starts when they want it to. Individual berries are hand-sorted several times and only the most desired grapes are allowed into tank, grape by grape.
During harvest, if one stands at the end of the sorting table, one will only see perfectly ripe berries – no jacks, stems or MOG (material other then grapes). This is aided by an optical sorter that can be programmed with an algorithm to only select certain sizes and shapes of grapes. Fermentation tend to be long as their winemaking team prefers to extract as much flavor as possible.
The actual winery and operations are extremely impressive. A number of large new French oak barrels are only used for five vintages and then replaced. How many Napa wineries can gravity feed wine from their main tanks located in a separate room into barrels in their caves? This state of the art process was perfected by Vineyard 29 in which wine is transferred directly from their tanks through a conduit in the wall to the barrels in the caves. They generate their own energy on site and are one of the most environmentally friendly wineries in the Napa Valley.
Lights in the cave automatically turn on as visitors enter. The cave is elegant – a fine blend of function and beauty. Tours often culminate in their small but dramatic Library Tasting room where typically three wines are presented. This is definitely among the most elegant tasting rooms that we have visited in the Napa Valley. These are also among the few sloped caves in the Napa Valley; this helps with managing barrels, water flow and other wine-making efforts.
Their wines are extremely well made from vineyard to bottle with attention to detail being paramount during all steps of the wine making. The wines we have tried over the years are always well balanced between flavor, acidity and tannin structure. A bottle of Vineyard 29 contains the best fruit their vineyards can offer – it is a true balance between terroir and technology.
Over the years Vineyard 29 has employed several prominent winemakers including winemaker Philippe Melka (he was their winemaker for 18 vintages). Philippe is one of the more well-known Napa Valley based winemakers; he is involved with a number of other premium Napa wineries including Brand and Lail Vineyards. Heidi Barrett also made wine for four vintages (formerly at Screaming Eagle and a well-respected consulting winemaker).
Vineyard 29 produces several wines – Cru Cabernet Sauvignon is by far their most produced wine. Zinfandel lovers take note; a delicious estate Zinfandel is produced from their Aida vineyard just north of the winery. Turley Vineyards used to produce Zinfandel from this vineyard and when Vineyard 29 purchased this property they replanted much of it to Cabernet Sauvignon – fortunately they left a smaller block of Zinfandel intact.
The Aida Late Harvest Zinfandel is noteworthy, due to its uniqueness and age both in the vineyard and in the winery (the vines date back to 1973). It is created every year in slight twist on the traditional solera style. The first vintage of this was produced in 2002 and every year it is again produced and then is added to existing barrels which are blends of prior vintages. A current release of this wine is always a combination of the previous vintages dating back to 2002 and every year only about a barrels worth of wine is bottled and then later released.
Smaller production wines include a Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley (they transport the fruit in a refrigerated truck and process it at the winery), an estate Cabernet Franc (the 2011 vintage is one of the finer Napa Valley Cabernet Franc’s that we have tried from this particular challenging vintage) and an estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of note is their Estate Sauvignon Blanc from a tiny 2/3 acre block on a hillside above the driveway near their tiny parking lot. There are a select few truly premium Sauvignon Blancs in the valley – of which Philippe Melka has had a hand in creating several over the years; this is certainly one of them. We tried the 2013 vintage after it had already been opened a full day. The bouquet is appealing; as it breathes it alternates between a captivating lemon-zest and tropical aromas including honeysuckle. The palate has exceptional balance for a wine still so young at the time of our tasting, along with pleasing acidity.
Their wines often score very well among wine writers especially with Robert Parker before he retired. A mailing list is offered through the website.
Vineyard 29 historically supports a variety of charities; one of their wines was hand crafted to support hurricane relief efforts and raised more than $150,000, all of which was donated.
Vineyard 29 offers several extremely personalized experiences. Typical visits are not short – allow at least 90 minutes to 2 hours depending on the experience. All tastings are seated, either outdoors on the terrace (weather permitting) or inside the beautiful Library Room.
CRU @ The Annex
This stand alone tasting room opened on an auspicious date – 9/29 2016. The focus of tastings are on CRU wines from Vineyard 29 as well as select Vineyard 29 wines. This tasting room is open to the public by walk-in and is located next to the Oxbow Public Market and overlooking the Oxbow Commons.
Chuck and Ann decided to start CRU with the intent to produce wines under this label in higher quantities and at a different price point then their Vineyard 29 wines. In addition, the sources for the CRU wines are non estate properties but are carefully managed with input from their own vineyard management team.
The tasting room focuses on the CRU wines but will certainly pour the wines of Vineyard 29. Appointments can be made for more private tastings – and through working with local food vendors, they offer select culinary experiences paired with the wines. Several different tasting flights are offered – each one unique to the CRU wines, AIDA wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon only tasting or the Vineyard 29 wines. Wines can be ordered by the glass or bottle.
You can find their wine locally at select premium Napa restaurants. The wines are also sold through their website but one must join the mailing list before gaining access to an allocation of wines within their shopping cart. For more information, to schedule an appointment or to join their wine club, visit: www.vineyard29.com