Prager Winery & Port Works is located at 1281 Lewelling Lane just south of the town of St. Helena right off of Highway 128 (West side of the road), across from Louis Martini Winery. Visitors to the property have to keep a sharp eye out for the entrance to their gravel driveway just north of the Sutter Home tasting room. The winery and tasting room are located along the busy wine strip known for its larger wineries and bold signage, Prager has neither a big winery nor a bold sign. Park in the gravel parking lot in the back.
Prager Port Works is a unique winery in Napa Valley as their specialty is port-styled wines and other late harvest “sweet wines”. They are the only open by walk in tasting room in all of Napa to specialize in dessert wines. Ask any winery in Napa Valley for a recommendation for “sweet wines” and invariably the name Prager Port Works will be at the tip of their Cabernet coated tongues. Warm up in the winter or anytime for that matter with a visit to their winery. A tasting generally includes 4 to 5 pours of various wines and vintages and visitors get to keep a souvenir glass.
In 2005 a law was passed requiring only producers from Portugal use the word ‘port’ on port wines, however if non-Portugal wineries had been previously using the word port on their bottlings, they were grand mothered in and are allowed to keep using this word should they choose to do so. Prager is one of these producers and continues to label their wine as port.
Prager produces both ruby and tawny-style ports. So what is the difference between these two styles of wines? The resulting two styles of wines differ in both color and flavor with their differences coming from how they are aged. Ruby ports are aged in large oak casks for up to three years while tawny ports are aged in small oak barrels. The differences in color and character (both on the bouquet and palate) between these two styles of wine are a result of the differences in amount of oak and oxygen the wine is subjected to during its aging based on the different sizes of the aging vessels.
The Prager’s have a long history in Napa Valley. Jim Prager (died in 2017) was originally from Orange County, California and grew up in a much different Orange County back when it was more agricultural based, rather than urban like it is today. He worked in insurance – his first trip to Napa Valley was in 1974 through one of the wine and food societies he belonged to. One of the highlights of his first visit to Napa was a personal tour with Jack and Jamie Davies, owners of the esteemed Schramsberg Winery.
During a midlife crisis, foolishly thinking he could make wine cheaper than he could purchase it, he and his wife Imogene moved to Napa Valley and produced their first crush in 1979. Initially most of their production was dry table wine. Lucky for us this soon changed, and they started focusing more on what all “sweet” tasters love – alcohol that is rich in flavor, sugar and acidity.
Their property is historic – once a part of the John Thomann Winery and Distillery (now Sutter Home). The carriage house on site dates from 1865. The winery including barrels and tanks is as the Prager’s say, “located in the shadow, directly behind Sutter Home” (and behind the Prager tasting room).
We remember when we first started visiting Prager, Jim used to host visitors himself – often tasting the wines with guests. He passed on in 2017. All responsibilities for the winery operations are handled by the Prager family with Jim’s three sons Jeff, John, Peter (the winemaker and who has also served as the President of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association) and daughters Mary and Katie and two son-in-laws, Rich and Kevin having taken over the day-to-day operations. They have no external employees, so you are always meeting with one or more of these family members (this is extremely rare to find for any winery located on Highway 29 between Yountville and St. Helena). Their total annual production is generally between 3,500 and 4,000 cases.
The tasting room is one of the most unique spaces in all of Napa Valley. One enjoys wine surrounded by thousands of US dollar bills and other paper currencies from around the world. Visitors walk through their barrel room to reach the tasting room. This room is often crowded (especially on the weekends) when we stop by and is usually a hub of conversation and laughter.
The typical question that usually is first asked is “why did you start putting money on your walls?” The typical answer is someone a long time ago first stapled a $1 bill to the wall, and it caught on from there. We have been told that this tradition first started in 1988 when Jim gave a customer change and he decided to staple it to the wall. Write your name on a bill and come back and collect it when you re-visit this winery. Consider Prager a bank that pays no interest! There are two rules when it comes to the money on display; don’t take any bills from the walls and don’t put any USA money on top of existing international currency. One wall is more or less dedicated to international bills including banknotes from countries that do not even exist anymore. And see if you can find the $100 bill with the image of Jim Prager instead of Benjamin Franklin.
And conversation invariably will turn to thick maze of cobwebs tangled over a number of old bottles on the windowsill. From what we have been able to determine – these cobwebs date back to around 1986 or so and have never been disturbed since.
The small tasting room often gets crowded, especially on the weekends – a second overflow room is used as needed. Several picnic tables are available outside of the winery. At least one loquat tree grows outside the tasting room and produces delicious fruit every year. We have broached the subject of making a loquat liqueur, but these fruits are difficult to process due to the large seeds inside.
One of our favorite Prager bottlings, is the Prager Royal Escort Vintage Port; this wine will age well for many years. In fact, we have an older vintage in our cellar, most definitely getting even better; we will open it for a very special occasion.
The 2018 Prager Royal Escort Napa Valley Port, Paladini Vineyard is 100% varietal Petite Sirah. It was aged for 30 months in oak barrels. This wine is dark ruby in the glass and extremely opaque; shows an opulence of ripe fruit aromatics including of dark plum, prune, dark cherry, boysenberry and blackberry. The fruit aromas are complemented very nicely with sweet baking spices including brown sugar, clove and cardamom. The bouquet also shows aromas of Graham cracker. The bouquet on this wine brings us back to when we first began Napa Wine Project. Prager Port was one of our earliest tastings; this wine kindled memories of the aromas we smelled all those years ago when we tried our first sample of a Prager Royal Escort Port. This wine is liquid velvet across the palate with flavors of plum and ripe blackberry with a secondary finish that follows the primary fruit filled finish, lingering with notes of lightly toasted cedar, dust, a hint of toast and a fine espresso character. The tannins are very fine grained and slightly chalk-like. Drink some bottles now, but really…hold on to this baby for decades if possible.
The 2018 Prager Aria Napa Valley White Port is 100% varietal Chardonnay. White Ports produced in Portugal are made from a number of grape varieties including but not limited to: Malvaisa Fina, Códega, Donzelinho Branco and Gouveioand. This wine was aged for 3.5 years in neutral oak barrels. It is pale amber in color; the aromatics are intense and deeply layered showing notes of honeycomb, it reminds us of our mother’s freshly baked cornbread as she used to pull it out out of the oven piping hot, ginger snaps, molasses, and very ripe stone fruit including canned yellow peaches and pear. This wine exhibits a light satiny texture from start to finish. The fruit initially drops off quickly but then a secondary finish shows with flavors of apricot, honey, yellow peach, caramel and caramelized sugars. A nutty note of filbert and hazelnut continue to persist for some time. This wine is sweet, but not overly so. Unlike the Royal Escort port which is lovely served at room temperature, this wine can either be served at room temperature or chilled. This wine is named after the Prager’s first granddaughter Aria.
The 2006 Prager Tomas Napa Valley Port Imogene’s Vineyard (tasted 16 years post vintage date) is medium garnet in color; the aromas show caramelized sugar (like the crust of a crème Brule, prune and darker baking spices including cardamom along with caramel. This wine offers flavors of fig, ripe prune, blackberry jelly and plum jam. The finish drops off fairly quickly; this is not a richly flavored nor complex port.
A more recent addition to their portfolio is the Bronze White Port-styled wine which was aged in barrel for 8 years. Select older vintages are also for sale. Be sure to try their delicious chocolate port candies as these go really well with their wines. And candied walnuts and pecans (prepared by the family) are often paired with several of their wines and are available for sale as small gift boxes.
The 2012 Prager Madeline Late Harvest Riesling was aged in French oak for two years; it is dark yellow in the glass. There is a noticeable richness to the bouquet with aromas of banana, tropical notes, an orange peel zest, honey, caramel and citrus blossom. This richness carries onto the palate with flavors of yellow pineapple, honey and dried apricot. Features intense flavors but is not heavy in structure. This wine offers decent acidity which helps balance the sweetness. Finishes with a warm crème Brule / toffee / hazel nut combination. Shows a tinge of bitterness on the finish. Only sold in 375ml bottles. 16% alcohol and 12% residual sugar.
The Prager wine labels are all created by the Prager family. Unlike many wine bottles which feature a separate front and back label, the Prager label is one paper containing both the front and back label information. Also worth nothing is Prager lists the bottling year on the label in addition to its vintage.
Looking for still wines? Prager has produced several vintages of Petite Sirah in the past. Prager has been our only Napa Valley Winery to make our 25+ year old Highlight of the Month list (Jan 2007) on our sister travel site. And in an old school Napa Valley tradition, Prager sends all visitors who purchase a tasting, home with a souvenir wine glass. Often select older vintages are available for purchase on their website or in the tasting room. For more information, to browse several port-friendly recipes, or to join one of their wine clubs, visit: www.pragerport.com
Vicki scott says
My little sister and I visited Prager winery in the summer of 1988 – just befor I moved to Texas. We met Jim and struck up a long conversation with him – I think my sister wanted to take him back home with her or move out to California just to be near him. We still have a bottle of 1988 Gewürztraminer that he signed for us wth a gold pen – told us to hang onto it and celebrate the new millennium with it!! 2000 came and went and we forgot about the dusty bottle of tucked away in my front closet. But I found it yesterday and thought I’d see if there was any interest from your family in this bottle. I seriously doubt if it’s drinkable, but it may be as sentimental to your family as it is to us. Let me know – I’ll send pictures of the bottle if you’d like. I am a wine enthusiastist and have collected wine for decades – and treat my wine like children. So the bottle has not been exposed to extreme temperatures or excessive movement. It brought a huge smile to my face to pull that bottle out of hiding as we prepare to remodel our house.
Philip AuClaire says
Amazing small world…..!! I just had the same experience with a 1987 !! …..great wines and we have to get back to Napa soon.
Vicki – back in 1988 – that is going back a ways – certainly significantly fewer tasting rooms in Napa then there are today! Thanks for sharing that cool story.
I’d love to try some of Prager’s 1980s vintages!
Robin Starzman says
My first visit to Prager’s was around 1992. Of course, I totally enjoyed Jim Prager’s personal attention, which included sharing his vast wine making experience. And bringing home a couple signed bottles was special. About three years later I had the opportunity to return to the area and a stop at Prager’s was a must. I walked in and Jim lit up, calling my name as if I was a long time friend finally returning home. I walked out with a couple bottles of his (still) excellent wine and a bottle of port – all signed. As he signed the port, he whispered he wasn’t in the habit of signing the port bottles, but he would for me. I haven’t been able to get back to the Napa Valley area, but fast forward to 2020, I finally opened the 1995 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon not expecting much. I was wrong! Umm, umm, tasty. The port is still in my small wine cooler… Should I open it? Hmm…and, while I’m contemplating, I think of Jim fondly. What a talent – and lovely man. If I ever return to the valley, Prager’s is on my list. (Dave, what a great review.)
Robin – I miss the days I used to stop by and see Jim. Thanks for sharing your experiences visiting Prager. I’ll bet that 95′ had aged well and I’ll bet the port you have aging has probably aged even better 🙂 Sounds like the port is coming up on 30 years. Thanks, Dave