Napa Winery Visits: A Study In Contrasts

Nirvana, Folksy, and Weird

The question comes up a lot: What wineries should we visit in Napa?  Most of the time I suggest skipping Napa in favor of northern Sonoma.  But everyone should experience Napa at least once in their lives.  And, if you know where the few pockets of heaven remain in Napa Valley, well, those are worth putting on your itinerary.  So, how do you know?

When a relative recently asked for some help on where to go in Napa, I cobbled together a short list of places I would go - not based on first hand experience, but on the desire to discover.  Three of those were Boeschen, Canard, and O'Brien.  Nirvana, folksy, and weird, as it turns out.  Here they are along with some observations of the visitors experiences.  If you're in need of a good laugh, you really should read all the way to the bottom for the O'Brien experience.

Nirvana.  We recently ran a piece on Doug  Boeschen, winemaker and partner at Boeschen. "Living the good life" might not do this place justice.  From the moment the gates open off of the Silverado Trail, you enter nirvana - a perfect world of winemaking and life. It is an amazing estate with beautiful, extensive gardens recreated to original 1800’s specs by Doug's mom, and an underground winery cave carved into the side of Glass Mountain. 

Doug himself appears right on queue to welcome his visitors like old friends before taking them into the cave, perfectly lit, appointed with art, and where nary a cork is out of place.  Sections of the cave walls are exposed to display the volcanic obsidian rock that gives Glass Mountain its name. That's pretty freaking cool. Okay, so first impressions are great, but how's the wine?  Up in the loft is the perfect spot to sample what turns out to be some of the finest Napa Cab (previously decanted) you've never heard of – incredibly balanced with all the right things happening at just the right moments – an amazing experience!  Although the Cab-based wines are average for Napa Valley ($70-75), they are a splurge, but worth joining the wine club for.  Consider it an indulgence in wine consumption – and the price of admission to be a small part of this incredible winery.

At the end of the day this place is a “died and went to heaven” reality. 

Canard Vineyard
Rich “Duck” Czapleski is a warm and "regular" guy and the proprietor of Canard.  Eager to please, he welcomes visitors to his beautiful stone patio when the weather's right.  Otherwise, you're at home (literally) at his kitchen counter where the spread of cheeses and wines is almost overwhelming.  Rich and his wife Candi they knew nothing of winemaking and little of the land when they bought the property back in 1983.  Thanks to being more in tune with the land - and the oversight of winemaker Brian Graham, Rich is stressing the vines - zero irrigation and very low yields.  It shows in his wine, which is dynamite, and is very well priced relative to his neighbors.

Behind the winery's hand-carved entry door is a facility in general disarray, including moving van boxes and a cluttered tasting table.  Clearly the Czapleskis are focusing on the vines and wines rather than the winemaking facility's atmosphere.  Frankly, that can be a welcome change of pace in often glitzy, impersonal Napa, as the next stop illustrates.  All and all, a nice experience.

O'Brien Estate
Oh, you came for the wine?  Greeted by a smooth, over-the-top, and fast-talking salesman, the visitors were treated to a rapid fire monologue of the history of the Valley, the winery's founders love affair, and a relentless litany of Parker scores.  Wow.  But it gets better (or worse).  The aforementioned love affair is apparently the basis for the winery’s "passionate" wine offerings which sport names of escalating hormonal infusion like "Attraction", "Flirtation", "Seduction", and my personal favorite, "Unrestrained." Each of these is adorned with poetry lines, which the salesman recited verbatim.

Warm up taken care of, it was time to move in for the kill.  The salesman began his pitches, first for romance-themed gift sets, then for the wine club.  The gift sets are offered because,"Our goal is to touch your heart before the wine touches your lips included."  Seriously, he actually said that.  Touching your heart starts at $250, by the way.  To top that off, the "Seduction" gift set includes a red negligee, which the salesman pulled out of the box to displayYou can't make this shit up, folks.  That's some concept to demonstrate in the company of children.  Wow again. 

So, which one comes with an intimacy kit?  It's got to be "Unrestrained."  Finally, for the selling crescendo: the wine club hard sell.  Apparently O'Brien expects to be a "private" winery by the end of next year, already having sold 1400 of the 3000 spots available.  Hurry!  Only 1600 spots left!

The bright spot in all of this silliness was the young winemaker from , David Yorgensen. His manner and expressions about being a winemaker all rang true.  He's the kind of soft spoken guy you want to join for dinner just to talk wine and lifestyle. He is obviously a talented winemaker and thrilled that he has been able to be a big part of creating O'Brien's reputation. But the marriage between distracting, gimmick-ridden, and misguided marketing strategy and the really down-to-earth, straight-talking, and obviously talented winemaker is an odd fit.

O'Brien Gift Box.  What exactly are they selling?  And what the heck does that mean?