On my last trip to Napa, I wanted to visit an AVA I had never tasted before. From Rutherford on the Napa Valley floor, my husband and I followed Highway 128 east for about 25 minutes in a narrow and winding path passing Lake Hennessey on the left (cover photo) and the Vaca Mountains on the right. Chiles Valley AVA is quite isolated in comparison to other places in Napa. The climate is mild. On average it is three to five degrees cooler than the Napa Valley floor due to winds from the south as well as an elevation of 600 to 1200 feet. Most notably they grow Cabernet Sauvignon with marked acidity as well as Merlot with cocoa notes. With only 6,000 acres of vineyards and five wineries (there are more grape growers than wineries), Chiles Valley is sleepy and quaint. Although it was a Friday morning, there were no other people tasting wine at either of the wineries we visited. None. At all.
Suddenly as we rounded a steep curve, a historic country house appeared on the right – with barely enough space for us to park our car on the side of the road. Nichelini Winery is one of the most historic wineries in Napa. Founded in 1890 by Swiss immigrants Anton and Caterina Nichelini, the family has been making wine on their Estate for 128 years (including making sanctimonious wines during prohibition). The wines themselves are excellent examples of restrained world class wine, harkening back to a style of wine that is usually associated with Napa in the 1970s, having lower alcohol levels and restrained use of oak. One of the oldest vines on the property are 1946 Muscadel vines, possibly the oldest white wine grapes in California (according to our very knowledgeable tasting host). My favorite wine was the Lot 15 Reserve Roman Press Red. A blend of 62% Merlot and 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, it is herbaceous and minty.
The wines coupled with the beautiful history, scenery, and laid-back vibe makes Nichelini one of my favorite places to visit.
The next winery we visited was Volker Eisele Estate. A family run winery, we spent an hour and a half with Catherine Volker, who’s husband’s parents started the winery in 1974. Walking around the vineyard we saw the elements of a balanced ecosystem. Walnut and oak trees provide a beautiful home for hawks and other birds that keep the rodent population at bay. Catherine explained the intricacies of the vineyard during our tour. We discussed vineyard management, such as the use of sprinklers to prevent frost, as well as the variation of Cabernet clones in different areas the vineyard. Each clone has different sun exposure and ripens at slightly different times. I enjoyed getting to know the Volker family and taste their wines. Like a lot of wineries, Volker makes a table wine that is served at restaurants and keeps the best grapes for their own bottles available at the wineries and sold directly to members. My favorite is the Terzetto – a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon all picked on the same day and co-fermented. In this “trio” the vines are meticulously cared for to make this possible.
While we were there we discussed a recent measure to prevent the removal of ancient oaks on hillsides. As wealthy investors want to make their own wine (who doesn’t get an ego boost from reading your name on a wine label?), they look to cultivate the land farther north – and in more remote valleys and AVAs like Chiles Valley. Unfortunately cutting down these ancient oaks harms the watershed and ecological balance of the land.
While it is a magical experience to visit a family vineyard like those in Chiles Valley, learning about this local issue demonstrated the challenges small family wineries face to continue the cultural heritage of Napa Valley. I have so much respect for their devotion and dedication. And alot of love for their wine.