Laura Michael Wines at Zathila Vineyards are owned by winemaker Laura Swanton. She grew up in Phoenix Arizona and moved to California in 1992 when an opportunity arose to work in high tech (worked for Cisco in San Francisco). She has enjoyed wines for many years and became a self-taught vintner after purchasing this Calistoga property in 1999 from the prior owner who was a hobby winemaker. Being a self-taught winemaker has its obvious advantages when you live in Napa Valley. There is an abundance of top winemakers who all have a wide-ranging depth of knowledge and a willingness to share this knowledge with each other. Refreshingly the wine industry is not as cutthroat as say finance, high-tech or Hollywood.
The winery and tasting room are located just east of Lincoln Ave in Calistoga directly along the edge of the Silverado Trail. The tiny barrel room is located right next to the tasting room as is the small crush pad. Space is at a premium here and often visitors may see stacked cases of wine against the wall inside the tasting room. This is certainly one of Napa Valley’s smaller tasting rooms which makes for one of the more personalized “bar” tasting experiences at any Napa winery. The several acre Oat Hill hillside vineyard is planted on the property, directly behind the winery and tasting room. This vineyard is planted to several varieties including Zinfandel and Touriga Nacional, a very unique variety within Napa Valley. Touriga Nacional is native to Portugal and primarily grows in that country’s Douro Valley.
The vineyard is named in homage to the nearby Oat Hill Mine, historically one of the most prominent cinnabar ore (mercury) mines in the area; at its height some 200 workers were employed. Within a short walk of Laura Michael Winery is the trailhead for the 8+ mile Oat Hill Mine Trail which winds up the hillside eventually reaching Aetna Springs Road leading into Pope Valley; this makes for a good hike or bike ride into the Vaca mountains, just not in the heat of the middle of a summer day! Despite the trail’s same name as the mine, it doesn’t actually lead to the mine itself.
Laura Michael’s first Cabernet Sauvignon was produced in 2000 under the label Zathila Vineyards; much later Laura changed the name of the winery to Laura Michael to represent both her and her husband’s first names. Laura is the winemaker and Michael oversees the management of their vineyard. Their production has remained small, generally around 2000 cases per year. All fruit is sourced from premium vineyards in Napa Valley and in neighboring Sonoma County.
Tastings generally begin with a rosé or their one white wine: a Chardonnay. Early on, this wine was created from two separate vineyard sites located at opposite ends of Napa Valley, one in a warm and one in a cooler growing climate. The differences in terroir between these two sites created an intriguing wine. The end result was a complexity of tropical flavors including very ripe pineapple and passion fruit but with some acid restraint contributed from the cooler climate vineyard. As of our latest update to this review, Laura Michael sources their Chardonnay from a single vineyard in Yountville. This Chardonnay does not go through malolactic fermentation.
This is a very low production winery so some of their more popular wines do sell out rather quickly. However, with that said, it is very nice to discover a winery that pours older vintages in their tasting room and has some of these for sale; during a recent visit select wines from vintages eight and nine years old were available to taste and purchase.
During visits, hosts will often pour two Zinfandels and two Cabernet Sauvignons side by side for comparison. Visiting is on a quasi-appointment basis; their tasting room is very small and if it is already packed guests may need to schedule a later appointment otherwise drop by and sign their register before starting the tasting.
In the early springtime beautiful flowering trees grace the property including a plethora of other annuals. Laura Michael has been producing wines since 1999 and has already picked up its share of top wine awards at various competitions.
Zinfandel lovers take note; Laura has produced excellent Zinfandel for many years. She used to produce a Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley; an area known to produce excellent Zinfandels in neighboring Sonoma County. This wine was made in a leaner style than the Oat Hill Estate Zinfandel. Today, she focuses on a single Zinfandel from the property (Oat Hill estate); this is the only wine entirely sourced from the property.
The 2017 Laura Michael Oat Hill Estate Zinfandel is dark ruby in color; this wine smells like desert in the glass without the overripe characteristics that sometimes California grown wines of this variety exhibit. The alcohol is 13.7% rather than the more common 15% for this variety. Offers aromas of chocolate brownie, blackberry jam, Fig Newton, Graham cracker and some darker dessert spices. As the wine evolves in the glass it shows notes of mocha and brown sugar. This is a fun wine to smell. Juicy and lively with plenty of concentration across the palate, this wine offers flavors of ripe plum, dark cherry and black licorice. The finish shows some toasted oak, darker baking spices and is anchored by well-integrated tannins with a light gravelly texture. The finish continues to persist with plenty of lingering fruit flavors and mouthwatering acidity. This wine was aged 18 months in 100% American oak of which up to 40% was new.
The 2018 Laura Michael A Quiet Moment, Red Wine is dark ruby in the glass; the bouquet offers aromas of ripe blackberry, licorice, darker chocolate, old cedar box, mocha and vanilla. This wine features an intensity of fruit across the plate with flavors of blackberry, spicy plum and red cherry. The finish is juicy and features mouthwatering acidity. It is anchored by drying and darker tannins which are still somewhat tightly woven at the time of our tasting (4 years post vintage date). The tannins and fruit continue to persist for quite some time.
Laura has produced Cabernet Sauvignon from a variety of vineyards over the years including a single vineyard wine from Beckstoffer owned Georges III Vineyards in Rutherford. Today she continues to produce two Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Rutherford and also one from Calistoga.
The 2018 Laura Michael Cabernet Sauvignon, Barlow Vineyards Calistoga is dark ruby in color; the bouquet is slightly meaty which opens to generous aromas of dark cherry, plum, red licorice, mocha and old cedar box. The aromatics offers a nice integration between both fruit and oak influence. Balanced from start to finish this wine shows very youthful four years post vintage date at the time of our tasting. Offers a bright finish anchored by lively acidity and flavors of red cherry and red currant. The tannins show a dry, tight and lingering grip. This wine still has plenty of life ahead of it and we would be curious to try it over the next 10-15 years. It is rare to find a contemporary Napa Valley grown Cabernet Sauvignon in the low 13% alcohol range; this wine is 13.2%. It was aged in 40% new French oak and 60% used French oak.
The 2008 Laura Michael Barlow Vineyards, Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon shows a pleasing red fruit component on the bouquet including raspberry and red cherry. The wine is balanced on the palate, offering fresh fruit flavors (drinks a bit younger than it is). Firm slightly rough tannins linger for some time with tinges of mocha. This wine is sourced from the family-owned Barlow Vineyard south of Calistoga along the Silverado Trail. While the Barlow family sells some of their grapes to other producers such as Laura Michael, they also produce their own wines bottled under Barlow Vineyards.
The multi vintage (2011-2013) Laura’s Theme Dessert Wine is a 50/50 blend of Calistoga grown Petite Sirah and their estate grown Zinfandel. The bouquet is minty, and herbal with notes of Eucalyptus – similar aromas of a Vick’s cough drop. It also shows aromas of cigar smoke. This is a lighter port-styled wine on the palate but with plenty of flavor and sugar. This wine shows decent acidity which somewhat tempers the residual sugar. There are also flavors of baking spices and darker chocolate.
Other than a few local restaurants in Calistoga, Laura Michael does not distribute their wines, rather, their wines are sold direct to customers primarily to those who have personally visited the winery. For more information, to schedule a tasting, or to join one of their wine clubs, please visit: www.lauramichaelwines.com
Congratulations on 20 years! Such a cool producer that often flys well under the radar.