Brannan Wines was founded with their inaugural vintage by winemaker Seth Cripe (Lola Wines) and Carl Denne. Both men are residents of Calistoga and randomly met over a conversation hanging out in the hot tub at Calistoga based Solage Resort. They connected over their love of wines; Seth soon introduced Carl to some of his own wines (Lola). They created Brannan Wines to honor the founder of Calistoga, Samuel Brannan. This brand is uber local with all vineyard sources from small vineyards in Calistoga.
Dene and his wife Heather moved to Napa Valley from Long Beach in 2021 and have since become very involved in the local community. They own Brannan Cottage Inn and Sam’s General Store, the building that currently houses Picayune Cellars & Mercantile on the lower floor and lofts on the upper floor and the building that formerly housed the Vermeil tasting room and later the Lawyer Family Estates tasting room. And from his time in Long Beach he still owns the company he founded, a marketing and design firm called Vision Design Studios.
He and his father were involved in a number of restaurants in Long Beach; today he co-owns Michael’s Downtown in Long Beach, an Italian restaurant founded in 2013. This restaurant is located along the pedestrian friendly Promenade. We highly recommend a stop here for lunch or dinner; the food is creative, the ambiance welcoming and the service excellent.
Cripe, originally from Florida but now lives in Calistoga founded Lola Wines in 2008. He and his wife Rafaela operate the Lola tasting room in Calistoga.
We have researched numerous personalities connected to Napa Valley and its wine business; most of our research has been very cut and dry, factually referenced, usually from multiple sources. However with Samuel Brannan there is so much conflicting information out there that it can be difficult to get to the truth. We have read several books about the man, researched some of his past at the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga and combed through numerous old newspapers for information about his contributions to the state of California and Napa Valley in particular.
Brannan was born in the Atlantic coastal community of Saco, Maine in 1819 and lived with his family on the corner of Main and Beach Streets; he was introduced to the Mormon faith in 1832 at age 13 when two Mormon missionaries stayed at the Brannan home. This was merely two years after the Morman faith was founded by Joseph Smith. Brannan moved to Ohio in the mid 1830s. He moved to New York City in 1842 and founded and published a Mormon newspaper called the Prophet.
He first came west in 1846 in his late 20s, sailing on the ship Brooklyn (whose passage he organized) from New York around the bottom of South America on his way to the Mexican controlled territory of California. Several hundred Mormons were on board with the intent to settle and build a Mormon community far from some of the constraints they experienced in the United States. By the time they arrived six months later 11 people on board had died, primarily from scurvy and two babies were born. They docked at Yerba Buena Cove on July 31, 1846; they were probably disappointed at the stark surroundings and most likely the bone chilling cold and fog that typically blankets this coastal part of California during the summertime.
Yerba Buena was a colony and had a population of only around 200 at that time. Once the passengers on Brooklyn departed, the population of the young community more than doubled in size. Upon their arrival, they discovered that California was no longer under Mexican control. Brannan’s group stayed anyways. Yerba Buena was renamed to San Francisco on January 30, 1847. And Brannan became an entrepreneur taking full advantage of California’s Gold Rush.
He founded the state’s first English newspaper called the California Star (later known as the Daily Alta California) on January 9, 1847 in San Francisco at the address of 743 Washington Street. He had previous experience in assisting publishing Mormon newspapers while he lived in New York. The last issue of the Daily Alta California was published on June 2, 1891.
In 1848 Brannan the first person to publish an announcement of the early gold findings in Coloma. In 1849 he opened a general store at Sutter’s Fort to sell provisions to gold miners. He later opened additional stores. This was an extremely successful venture which would pave the way for a number of Brannan’s future businesses. At the height of his income in 1849, he earned $150,000 in a single month. After the initial rush of the gold miners needing supplies and pickings becoming more slim in the subsequent years, his earnings naturally dropped. By December 1853 an article in the Chico Weekly Chronicle-Record noted that Brannan’s annual income was $250,000, a significant sum of money in those days.
Brannan’s store was a contemporary of another extremely successful supply operation which began that same year on Mormon Island: Warren & Co which several years later would change its name to Baker & Hamilton whose name is used on a wine produced by Vine Hill Ranch in Oakville due to family connections. The founder of Warren & Co, James Lloyd LaFayette Warren also started a newspaper, the California Farmer which was published from 1854 until 2013. An in regard to Mormon Island being one of the first gold discovery sites (March 5, 1848) and ultimately the center of the gold rush activities in the early days, Brannan also was involved in its operations. An article dated December 29, 1855 in The Empire County Argus referenced, “Samuel Brannan soon found out that gold digging was going on there, and holding the keys of the Mormon church, he required “tithes” to the tune of one-third of the gold taken out, following the illustrious example of Sutter and Marshall at this place”.
Brannan Cottage, Sharpsteen Museum, Calistoga
Brannan gravesite, Mt. Hope Cemetery San Diego
Using income from his stores and Mormon Island gold diggings, Brannan purchased a large ranch along the banks of the Feather River. An article in the November 24, 1855, issue of The North Californian newspaper references Brannan’s 1,800 acre ranch was in the process of being completely enclosed by a substantial fence. He also purchased land in San Francisco and donated some of it including for a cemetery. And his land holdings extended into southern California and even on Hawaii. With timing, coupled with the decision to sell supplies rather than look for gold, Brannan made incredible amounts of money in a very short amount of time.
In 1851 he organized the Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco, a citizens’ police force who practiced vigilante justice with trials occurring in Brannan’s office and then, depending on the verdict, punishment primarily included deportation but also several lynchings.
He continued to invest his earnings in a variety of businesses and real estate. In 1854 he built what would become the largest wharf at the time in San Francisco. Brannan Street in that city pays homage to his contributions. Sam Brannan Way in Yuba City is also named in his honor. So is Sam Brannan Public Park in that same city. Dating from 1853, is the Sam Brannan House at 112 J Street in old town Sacramento named in honor of Brannan and is located on land that Brannan once owned. And in Saco at the following coordinates: 43° 30.028′ N, 70° 26.578′ W is a plaque about Brannan with a nearby stone Gold Rush marker.
Brannan first visited the northern part of Napa Valley in the early 1850s and became intrigued by the natural hot springs in the area. He is attributed as the founder of Calistoga. In 1859, he purchased a mile square piece of land in the northern part of Napa Valley and began planting grapevines in Calistoga with cuttings collected from France, Spain, Germany and Italy. Three years later he opened Saratoga Springs Resort (named after the famous resort in New York) near some of these springs, located on what is the current site of Indian Springs Resort. In 1864 he also founded the Napa Valley Railroad; the tracks still exist along the original footprint and are used by the Napa Valley Wine Train, originating in Napa and ending at Charles Krug Winery.
An article dated April 22, 1868 in The Sacramento Bee details how Brannan was almost killed on the night of April 16, 1868 in Calistoga outside of his steam pumping plant and sawmill. He wanted to forcibly remove those in charge at the mill as they were no longer paying the rent to him; several sources reference Brannan and his colleagues had been heavily drinking that night. Brannan told the mill operators he would return during daylight to take over his mill. Those with Brannan were then instructed to step aside and Brannan was fired upon with shotguns and pistols. They kept firing at him after he fell to the ground. This article states his coat was pierced in more than 20 places, with some of the bullets embedding in a thick bundle of papers in his breast pocket. Another article in the dated April 18, 1868, in the Stockton Daily Evening Herald details he was wounded in his neck, shoulder and kidneys. Miraculously he survived although he had to use a cane for the rest of his 20+ years due to a permanent partial paralysis in his hip from his wounds.
In the ultimate rags to riches and then almost to rags story, including struggles with alcohol later in life, a sizable divorce settlement and bad investments, Brannan died on May 5, 1889 at his 100 acre fruit farm in Escondido (including growing figs) that according to his obituary in the The Sacramento Union dated May 7, 1889, he had recently purchased. A number of newspapers around the state of California covered his death the day after he died or within several days. Sixteen years after Brannan died, his nephew Alex purchased a plot in the Mt Hope Cemetery in San Diego and is where Brannan is buried.
Not related to Brannan Wines are Samuel Brannan Vineyards located next to the Silverado Trail owned by proprietor Edgar Lantz. An original wooden building is located on that property once used as a distillery by Brannan.
The Brannan Wines are crafted to showcase both the terroir of Calistoga and its historical winemaking styles. Their 100% varietal bottlings focus on the inherent characteristics of the grape varieties. These are bright and balanced wines. Oak is a used as a vessel, a carrier during the wine’s aging and is not meant to ever dominate or distract from the wine.
The 2021 Brannan Wines Heritage White is a blend of 85% Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard just north of Calistoga and 15% Orange Muscat from Seth’s own property. This wine was co-fermented using indigenous yeasts and went through native malolactic fermentation and was aged in neutral oak barrels. About 20% was fermented with both the skins and stems. It is medium gold in color; the bouquet sports aromas of honeysuckle, orange marmalade, a sweetness of pineapple and some mineral undertones. Deliciousness in the glass, the richly flavored palate offers flavors of stone fruits including peach, red apple, pineapple, passion fruit, pineapple guava and a lemon zest. Its texture is rounded and supple with a bright and energetic finish supported by its lively acidity. Pair this wine with a warm summer evening dining outdoors with good company at one of our favorite hangouts in Calistoga, the Calistoga Inn Restaurant with a plate of their Fresh Pacific Oysters.
The 2022 Brannan Wines Sémillon is 100% varietal; the dry-farmed vines for this wine were planted by Seth at his home vineyard in Calistoga. 2022 was the first harvest from this vineyard block producing their inaugural Sémillon. This wine was fermented 50% on the skins; its resulting color is dark golden. The bouquet is diverse and needs time to fully express itself. It offers aromas of bruised apple, a light herbal note including lemongrass and a lime zest, citrus blossom, a honeyed note including honeysuckle and deeper in the aromas a hint of vanilla. The palate is rounded with a supple texture and accompanying flavors of green apple, comice pear, mandarin orange, lime and grapefruit. The racy acidity parallels the fruit on a long finish. Balanced and beautiful. We would like to try this wine with the Spicy Tuna Roll at Sushi Mambo in Calistoga. We should eat there more often.
The 2021 Brannan Wines Heritage Red is a blend of 60% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Charbono. The grapes for this wine are from vines ranging in age from 45 to 85 years old and were all co-fermented together. This wine is medium ruby in the glass showing primarily red-fruited aromas including raspberry, strawberry, cherry, currant and plum with a note of licorice. The bouquet is highly aromatic and fruit-driven. The palate offers flavors of cranberry with a tartness often associated with this fruit, cherry, raspberry and an herbal note, perhaps a hint of mint. Remarkably, considering the varieties in this blend, the tannins are well-managed and show a feathery texture with a seamless feel. Supple is not an adjective we normally use to describe the texture of some of these varieties. The finish lingers with a light drying character. Head of Hospitality at the time of our visit, Lee Anderson recommends serving this wine slightly chilled. The Grilled Alaskan Halibut is delicious at Sol Bar at Solage Resort in Calistoga; try pairing this wine with that dish.
The 2021 Brannan Wines Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% varietal. This wine was fermented with 25% stems included. It is deep ruby with an amaranthine rim; the bouquet is very much focused on the inherent varietal characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon when its harvested at an earlier ripeness. These include aromas of red cherry, blackberry and violets. The palate is bright and mirrors the red fruit characteristics on the bouquet with flavors of cherry and other red berries. The tannins are grainy/granular in texture with a light astringency, perhaps more from the stem tannins than the skin tannins. Both tannins and fruit pace each other in parallel on the long finish. Looking for an opulent, hedonistic and ripe Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Look elsewhere. That is not this style. Descriptive words include savory, bright and mouth watering. This wine drinks well now but is also age worthy. Perhaps pair with a flatiron steak at Evangeline.
Charbono is a little known variety in which only about 40 acres grow in Napa Valley (in Calistoga). This variety produces wines dark in color with lower acidity but higher pH, lower alcohol and no pyrazines (the compound resulting in a green character). It is also a highly tannic wine so careful tannin management both in the vineyard and in the cellar is required. Charbono can be a challenging variety to grow as bud break comes very early in the season, typically before the frost season is over and it can be extremely slow to ripen. It reaches its phenolic maturity often when the sugars are still much lower than other red varieties. It does well in Calistoga because of the diurnal temperature difference between day and night which is often 30-45 degrees on a summer day. It can also be blended, even in small percentages to coax out fruit characteristics of other varieties.
The 2021 Brannan Wines Charbono (100% varietal) was sourced from 80+ year old dry farmed vines. This wine was aged for 9 months in neutral oak barrels. This bottling is deep ruby and opaque. The bouquet is savory showing several spice notes including tobacco and pepper along with petrichor (the resulting aroma from rain on dry ground), raspberry and plum. The palate features waves of flavor including of plum, currant and red cherry. This bottling is rich but balanced with a persistent finish. This wine lingers with a light dust character and a dryness that shows more on the front of the palate than on the finish. Only 12.5% alcohol. This wine has years ahead of it with the proper aging. Charbono is an age worthy variety; we observed this first hand at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, FL which has an impressive collection of older domestic wines including old Inglenook Charbono. Tasting this wine made us immediately think of paring it with some sort of meat, perhaps the tri-tip at Buster’s BBQ, a local longtime favorite whose aromas around lunchtime always tempt us to pull into their driveway.
In May 2023 Brannan Wines began hosting visitors by appointment at the 6-room Brannan Cottage Inn tucked away at 109 Wappo Avenue in Calistoga. The location ties in very well with the story of Sam Brannan. The main cottage at the inn was built by Brannan in 1862 and is the only one of what were originally 25 cottages still standing in its original location. Since 1983 it has been on the National Register of Historic Places. The only other fully surviving Brannan built cottage is located a short drive away next to the Sharpsteen Museum.
Note the tall palm tree located directly in front of the cottage. Each of the original cottages were marked by a palm tree – other palm trees from sites of the original cottages still grow along parts of Wappo Avenue.
Visits are hosted either indoors or weather permitting in either of the two courtyards next to the Brannan cottage. Tastings include a flight of both red and white wines with add ons including either a diverse charcuterie board or a picnic lunch. Sam’s General Store (opened in 2019) is located inside the cottage and provides any of the food pairings. And this location is ideal to showcase the Brannan wines as Brannan Cottage Inn is conveniently owned by Dene.
While most visitors don’t spit during their tastings, a special spittoon dating from the 1880s can be used as needed.
Plans call for moving the tasting experience to a stand alone building on Lincoln Avenue with an opening date of potentially in Spring or Summer of 2024. We will keep an eye on this transition and will visit once the new space is fully operational. We will update our notes and photography at that point.
Total production is around 700 cases per year with plans to grow slightly but to always remain small. The focus with sales is primarily direct to consumer but also through limited distribution. Locally the wines can be found at most restaurants in Calistoga, ACME Wines in St. Helena and Backroom Wines and the Oxbow Wine Merchant in the city of Napa. Members who join the Brannan Wines Heritage club can choose from 6 or 12 bottle shipments twice a year. For more information, to purchase wines or to schedule a tasting, visit: www.brannanwines.com