I never thought in a million years that I'd encounter a place like Lava Vine on the Silverado Trail in Napa. I mean, this is the place of tastings that cost $45 and home of some of the brands that wine snobs LOVE to tell you they have cellars full of (Quintessa, Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps, to name a few). But when a very trustworthy friend from business school posted on the Wine For Normal People Facebook page that this was his favorite place, I knew I had to go (thanks again, Chuck!).
As it turns out, this was one of the best experiences I've ever had in Napa. If you want the formal grand tasting room, with staff hovering and mahogany bars, this isn't for you. But if you want to see how an up-and-coming winery with a great product and a down-to-earth vibe is getting started (and I assume you do, since you're reading this blog!), Lava Vine is it. This place embodies Wine For Normal People -- it's not snobby or pretentious, just a place to have fun, drink well, and learn a thing or two.
I should have known it was going to be a very cool and normal experience. The guy at Ladera, who was super corporate and seemed to look down his nose a bit at "Wine For Normal People" was shocked when I told him our next stop was Lava Vine. He boasted that he knew the winemaker well because their kids played soccer together, but when I asked him if he'd ever visited the winery or had the wines, he said no. I got the distinct impression that this place may be a little too indie for him...and man, was I right!
If you head north on the Silverado Trail and hang a left after the (industrial looking) water plant, you'll see a little house that looks more like a general store than a winery. About the only thing that says "Napa" on this property is the gorgeous view of the mountains, and the lovely logo'd sign at the entrance. But once you drive around the back, there's an awesome barn, a pretty veranda, and a vintage Lava Vine mascot truck that makes you realize that un-Napa is a good thing.
Everything had personal touches -- this was clearly someone's place, not a corporate mega-conglomerate.
I was so excited to be there. As we walked up I saw two guys using a hand press to crush grapes. This is a site you never see except in pictures from the 1930s! I peered into the left side of the barn, where there were plastic vats with crushed grapes fermenting. MC Ice and I rolled into the tasting room and were warmly welcomed by Jon, who told us that they don't usually host writers, but that I sounded normal enough to make the cut...what a compliment!
Lava Vine is a tiny operation. It's run by Joe Cabral, a former real estate builder/contractor who got into wine for the same exact reasons I did -- he loved the stuff, and he loved the promise of perpetual learning it offered. I felt a real kinship with him as he told me his background (as did MC Ice, who is in real estate!).
Joe and his family got the opportunity to buy a super-steep 4 acre vineyard in the Franz Valley of Calistoga in Napa in 2000. Although it was a hot mess that needed a ton of work (that could only be done by hand, given the 45% slope), Joe perservered. He became a home winemaker and made wine from the Portuguese grapes growing in his vineyard...as you can probably guess, he started with a Port-style wine.
By 2004, Joe teamed up with another winemaker and started the Lava Vine label. In 2008 he and his wife bought the property on the Silverado Trail and opened the tasting room in October of that year.
Three years later, the place has a ton of fans and sells everything it makes. It's a small shop that focuses on quality, hospitality, and love of wine. I felt like I was hanging out with friends the whole time I was there. Everyone seems to like each other and to be so happy -- what a great work environment!
Joe and his assistant/partner Burroughs took some time out of manually pressing the grapes to talk to us and share the Lava Vine story. Jon, in the tasting room, was so sweet and his passion for wine and food pairings was evident (he gave us some real treats, which I'll share below).
It's rare that you go anywhere in wine country and feel this welcomed and such a part of the experience. I was happy to be there, but I was even happier that the product kicked ass. It would have been a shame if they were nice people making crap wine, but I'm here to tell you -- that's not the case.
Here's the lineup...
Wine #1: 2009 Lava Vine Napa Valley Viognier, $29
Color: This was a light, almost platinum color. A bit unexpected for a Napa Viognier, which I usually expect to be dark since a lot of winemakers like to make use of oak (drowning out the delicious natural flavors, in my opinion).
Smell: The smell was all Viognier, all the time -- peach, honey comb, honeysuckle, and a fresh out of the oven lemon sugar cookie jumped out of the glass.
Taste: Again really unexpected. This wine had some great acid to balance the honeysuckle/lemon cookie thing. It was a very dry, light style but super fruity. I was surprised when Jon said that 10% of the wine was aged in oak to give it more body -- it definitely didn't taste like it, which is a good thing, I think.
Drink or Sink?: Drink...all day long. The wine was a little austere from the acid and I loved it. The contrast of acid and fruit made it tasty and refreshing and one of the best Napa Viogniers I've had.
Wine #2: 2010 Lava Vine Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $35
Color: This was a rich golden color and it scared me. Most Russian River Chardonnays tend to have very ripe fruit flavors and lots and lots of (out of balance) oak flavors. From the darker color I expected an oaky wine.
Smell: The wine had a very typical Russian River Chardonnay smell -- lots of green apple, some pineapple, and then a huge hit of caramel from the oak. Again, I felt trepidation, since I have to admit, although I appreciate the style, I'm not a personal fan of Russian River Chardonnay because I find it a little too much in the big fruit, butter, and oak stuff.
Taste: Damn! This was a great wine. It was so balanced -- it had great tart apple notes, just a touch of oak, and super acid. Jon let us in on a few secrets to their success.
- First, the grapes come from DuMOL, a very small production, highly esteemed producer in the Russian River Valley. The raw materials that Joe had to work with were awesome.
- Second, the wine didn't go through malolactic fermentation, which makes a wine creamy and buttery and can accentuate tropical flavors. That makes for a crisper, more acidic style.
Drink or sink?: In Joe's hands the grapes made a great wine. If everyone did Russian River Chardonnay this way, I'd be a convert.
Wine #3: 2009 Lava Vine Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $54
Color: A faded garnet color, this was lighter than some of the blood red Cabs that are common in Napa and can taste like prune juice because they are so fruity.
Smell: This is everything a Napa Cab should be -- bursting with red and black cherry and blackberry aromas, with a little bit of tobacco and dried dirt to boot. Apparently a very prestigious producer (who Jon didn't reveal) who owns a vineyard on a Calistoga hillside (it could be a lot of different wineries so I won't speculate) sold Joe the fruit for this wine. Hillsides produce grapes that have great balance between fruit and earth, so it's no surprise that the source is on a slope!
Taste: It was earthy but had great blackberry and black plum flavors. The wine had a meaty quality too -- it was smokey, rich, and full. Even with all that flavor, though, it was a great balance of fruit, mouth drying tannin, and acidity.
Drink or Sink?: Drink. This is a multi-faceted wine where the flavors just keep on coming, but it's not so heavy that one flavor or texture awkwardly stands out over the others. Perfectly balanced and an amazing price compared to other less impressive Cabs in the Valley.
Wine #4 (the one that started it all...) Lava Vine Dessert Wine (Port style)
Like the original, this Port-style wine is made of a blend of different grapes and vintages. It's got some of the Port faves: Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cao and then (a little off the menu for Port) Mourvédre and Petit Verdot. The grapes are from the '04 - '08 vintages.
Color: Right on par for a Port, this was a light brownish brick color. It wasn't dark like a ruby Port, but transparent.
Smell: I could tell this was going to be great. It had ripe plum, raisin, and floral smells to it -- an ideal combo. It smelled a little brandied and alcoholic, but in a warm, fruity way. Fortunately the wine didn't smell sugary sweet or artificial, a great sign for a Port-style.
Taste: This kicked serious ass. It was bursting with ripe black plum flavors, but was also a little pruney. It was full, smokey, and mouth filling but then it had such great acid that my mouth felt clean and ready for another sip after it went down. This is what Port is supposed to taste like.
Special Tasting: Jon had a really special treat for us on this one. He broke out unsweetened chocolate, poured on some olive oil and a pinch of sea salt and had us try it with the wine. Holy s*&t. The combo transformed into something like a dark chocolate, plum-filled truffle. It was creamy, fruity, salty, and warm. I could have sworn I was eating a box of Godiva. Heaven. You have to try this!
Drink or sink?: Needless to say, this is a drink.
What else can I say about Lava Vine ? I think this may be the most exciting place in all of Napa right now. If you're heading to California Wine Country, this is a MUST DO. If not, get in their wine club now because I bet it won't be possible in a few years. This is truly a place for normal people who like wine!