Vineyard 29 in our opinion is the technological pinnacle of Napa wineries. It is an intriguing winery, one of Napa’s true winery estates and is located just north of the town of St. Helena in the western foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. This “bench land” is some of the most premium terroir for this particular part of the valley; Grace Family Vineyards are immediate neighbors and several other high end growers are located nearby.
There is no winery sign, just an address and you definitely need to make an appointment as a visit here is for serious wine enthusiasts. Typical visits are not short – allow at least 90 minutes to 2 hours for the tour and sit down tasting. Their name comes from their highway address (2929).
The original founders of Vineyard 29, Teresa Norton and Tom Paine moved to the Napa Valley in 1989. Influenced by their vintner neighbors, Dick and Ann Grace of Grace Family Vineyards – they soon planted their own tiny vineyard with cuttings taken from the Grace Family vines. Their first release was 1992 – and it is interesting to note that the first seven vintages produced from Vineyard 29 were actually next door in the small Grace Family Winery. Current owners, Chuck & Anne McMinn purchased the property in 2000 and expanded both vineyard land (through several purchases) and the overall production.
This is one of the most technologically advanced wineries in all of Napa Valley which makes sense when you take into account the owner’s background. Chuck was Chairman for Covad Communications, a sizable Internet company, and he has spared no expense incorporating cutting edge technology and innovation into the winery. 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 is the brain center for the conditions in the vineyards themselves, caves and the winery (temps, humidity, soil moisture content etc). They have moisture probes scattered around the vineyards which read up to 6 feet deep and provide information for when to water and how much water is needed. They even have special instruments installed on select vines to measure how much water runs through the vines between the day and night!
Everything at Vineyard 29 is micro managed and as Chuck indicates, “jobs here can take up to 10x as long as at other area wineries”. Their focus is on quality and 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 start fermentation as soon as they become crushed. Vineyard 29’s post picking efforts result in fermentation that starts when they want it to. They hand sort individual berries several times and only the highest fruit is allowed to go into tank, berry by berry!
During harvest, if you stand at the end of where their sorting table drops off, all you will see are perfectly ripe berries – no jacks, stems or other distractions. This is aided by an optical sorter that can be programed algorithmically to only select the sizes and shape grapes from what comes in from the vineyards. Fermentation tend to be long as they are trying to extract as much flavor as possible.
The actual winery and operations are quite impressive. A number of large new French oak barrels are only used 5x 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 you walk in. The cave is plush, elegant and a fine blend of function and beauty – a tour culminates in their small but dramatic Library Tasting room where you will typically try three wines. This is definitely among the most elegant tasting rooms that we have visited in Napa. 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 tried are well balanced between flavor, acidity and tannin structure. If you will, a bottle of Vineyard 29 contains the best fruit their vineyards can offer – it is a true balance between terroir and technology.
Their well-respected consulting winemaker Philippe Melka (who is backed by a very solid wine making team here), also is involved with a number of other premium Napa Wineries including Brand and Lail Vineyards. Vineyard 29 produces a number of wines – their Cru Cabernet Sauvignon is by far their most produced wine – a delicious estate Zinfandel is produced from the Aida vineyard just north of the winery. Turley Vineyards used to produce Zinfandel from this vineyard and when Vineyard 29 purchased this vineyard they replanted much of it to Cabernet Sauvignon – fortunately they left a smaller block of Zinfandel intact.
Smaller produced wines include a Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley (they bring down 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 Franc’s from this particular challenging harvest that we have tried) and an estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Of note is their Estate Sauvignon Blanc from a tiny 2/3 acre block on a hillside above the winery. There are a select few premium Sauvignon Blancs in the valley – of which Philippe Melka has had a hand in creating 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. 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.
NOTE: Vineyard 29 has built a stand alone wine tasting outlet next to the Oxbow Public Market in Downtown Napa. This is called the CRU @ the Annex and appropriately opened 9/29 2016. Both the CRU and the Vineyard 29 wines can be tasted here. Walk in visitors accepted or by appointment.
You can find their wine locally at select premium Napa restaurants. For more information visit: www.vineyard29.com