Charbay Winery & Distillery: Napa Valley – In Search of Snobs

The trip up to Charbay took us on a lovely sunlit drive through St. Helena and up into the hills. The road got a bit twisty, but the occasional views through the trees were stunning. Since the penalty for missing a turn would have been severe (100-foot drop or more), Nikki got to enjoy the views more than I did.

Charbay offers tastings by appointment only. No, it isn’t a manifestation of the elusive snobbery we’d heard about in the area – it’s just that they’re off the beaten path and it’s not practical to have regular tasting room hours. It’s well worth the very small effort it takes to make a reservation. One tip: give yourself 10 minutes more than you think you’ll need to get there. While the drive is lovely, you’ll get to a fairly narrow winding road where caution compels a safer (lower) speed.

The gate magically opens and you are almost there!

As we headed toward the building from the parking lot, a cute, friendly little dog named Snifter (Sniffy to friends) waddled out and greeted us (we later met Sniffy’s adorable companion, Sunny). We then walked past a couple of alembic stills next to a patio and went inside.

Nikki adds: The still was the legendary “Still on the Hill.” It was beautiful, imposing…and currently nonfunctional. As John told us, a significant fiscal investment to build a brick housing, as well as one heck of a lot of paperwork, new sewage and possibly some changes in local laws, would be required for that specific still to begin operating on the Charbay property. The active still operation, using identical (but functional) equipment, is about a hundred miles north in Ukiah.

I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I came out John, who was manning the tasting room that day, was taking pictures with Nikki’s phone, having her pose next to the large exotic-looking stills outside. It was immediately apparent that we were in the presence of a fun-loving, gregarious individual.

Charbay Winery and Distillery
L-R: Sniffy, Mike, Nikki, a shrub
Charbay Winery and Distillery
Still Life

Charbay is a distiller and a winemaker, but licensing restrictions prevent them from offering tastings of spirits in the tasting room. While we’d love to give their distilled spirits a try, we were there for wine, so it worked out just fine for us.

Charbay Winery and Distillery
Now, who will we call when we need bail?

Inside the rustic tasting room, John told us about some of the finer points of distilling spirits, gave us a little background on the Charbay family, and then we got down to tasting some wine. Nikki adds: While you’re there, don’t miss the water! We’re not joking. It comes from a well on the property and is delicious.

It didn’t feel like a typical tasting room experience. It was much more like visiting an eclectic old friend with a great wine collection. Although we had just met John, we felt like old friends (in fact, if John and I had known each other when when we were kids I’m pretty sure we would have gotten into plenty of trouble, the kind where you might lose some fingers…).

Nikki adds: While we were there, a bus tour rolled in. John warned us they were coming and we braced ourselves for 30 people to flood in. Instead, eight charming people walked in, John gave them the tour, and the bus driver came over to chat with us. He told us he was from Platypus Tours, and he immediately charmed the heck out of us. Platypus only does small group tours (usually 8-10 people), and visits a lot of small wineries. The bus driver is also the tourmaster, personally giving tours of the wineries and giving the history of the area. This was no drunk limo; he knew his wines and the area and was clearly dedicated to educating his guests and ensuring they loved wine as much as he did. If we ever do a wine tour, we’re going with Platypus.

We were surprised when we realized we’d spent a solid two hours there. It sure didn’t feel like we were there that long. We’ll definitely be back. Chalk up another total failure to find even the slightest hint of snobbery in Napa!

The Wines:

2010 Chardonnay (St. Helena): Happy sunny aroma, with a very slight astringency that adds a little extra brightness! Flavor was mellow and estery, leaning toward buttery but stopping short of that. Bright but not tangy, with just a hint of oak. Nikki adds: We got to taste one that was freshly opened as well as one that had been open for a day or so. I found that the one that had breathed had a deep apple cider scent while the new one had hints of nougat, and the flavor changed too; the one that had breathed was VERY acidic, while the freshly opened bottle had more lemon and pink grapefruit to it.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville): Very complex aroma and flavor. On the nose I detected caramel, raisins, chocolate… I almost thought I was smelling a port! The flavor was equally layered, adding cocoa, mushrooms, wood, with a slightly meaty quality. Nikki adds: I got unsweetened chocolate and cacao nibs in the flavor. My notes also say “Tiny spice.”

I found this very complex and different than more middle-of-the-road Cabs. It was delightful. That pour was from a bottle that had been open for a while. John also opened a new bottle and gave us a taste – it was tighter and the fruit and tannins were a little more prominent. I would have been impressed with the newly-opened one, but the one that had oxidized a bit had greater separation in the flavor elements and provided a deeper, more laid-back taste.

Nikki adds: Mike said “The problem with most cabs is that they think my tongue is a vampire and are trying to drive a stake through it. This one doesn’t do that.”

2006 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley): The aroma shared some elements with the Cabernet Sauvignon, but with more caramel and a little smoke. On the tongue, there was a pop of tannins up front that then mellowed into sugared wood. On my second sip the tannins were mellower and I got more fruit. The finish was clean with a hint of grape peel. Many of the Cabernet Sauvignons and Francs I’ve tasted in my life have been pretty gosh-darned tannic and rather monolithic of flavor. The ones I tasted here showed me how much depth and complexity they can possess, especially when the tannins are so nicely balanced. Nikki adds: This made me think of what a port whiskey would be like. There was fruit in the front and oak in the back, with chocolate-covered hints.

Green Tea Aperitif: This tasted delightfully like someone had tried to replicate the flavor of Chartreuse using only traditional Chinese herbs and ingredients. The aroma and flavor were reminiscent of an herbal apothecary. It was slightly herbal, slightly sweet, and a mellow green tea flavor held the whole thing together. It was imaginative and delicious. Nikki adds: This reminded me of Black Qi from Hangar One, a liqueur that I love.

Pomegranate Dessert Wine: If I hadn’t seen the label my brain would have been chasing itself around going “It’s raspberry. No! It’s cherry! But there’s something else familiar… but it’s raspberry! No! It’s cherry!” It was very tasty with concentrated fruit, and of course much more convenient than eating a pomegranate and dealing with all the seeds. Nikki adds: My notes just say “Sheer perfection.”

1997 Distillers’ Port: Super-chocolaty aroma! The flavor had plenty of chocolate with elements of wood and hazelnut. It was like Christmas in a glass. Nikki adds: This port, made of cabernet sauvignon fortified with Charbay eight-year-old aged brandy, was in the barrel for 13 years. John told us, “This is a ‘Moorish’ port…because when you taste it you want more.” Mike said, “It’s like Santa Claus just climbed down my nose and left an bunch of presents on my tongue.”

1983 Sauternes: This was insane. Another example of the adventurous spirit of the winemakers at Charbay. The story goes that some years back the winemaker opened all the Sauternes, poured it in a vat, added yeast to run a secondary fermentation. When they re-bottled it they had to put pallets of wine on top of it to keep the corks from popping out. The result is an amazing dessert wine with an aroma of candied pecans and sweet raisins. The flavor is beautifully clingy, with amazing grape and raisin flavors all beglittered by the perfect effervescence provided by the secondary fermentation.

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