Day 1 – Napa Valley: Orin Swift Cellars and Charles Krug

So after a 2-hour delay, Graham and I arrived in San Francisco last Thursday. One of the first things I did was phone the understanding Neil Jelfs at Orin Swift, which was scheduled to be our first stop, to apologize for our delay.

Next up was picking up our rental car… a Chevy HHR, which is design-wise, a bad take on the whole retro-Americana auto thing if you ask me. At least it was black and had plenty of room for luggage and wine, of course. An hour and a half later we were in St. Helena, one of my favourite wine towns.

Orin Swift Cellars doesn’t have the usual winery… they’re located in a gorgeous office space on the 2nd floor of the Odd Fellows Lodge building on Main Street. It’s a large, high-ceilinged space with the marketing department on one side of a glass wall and the wine-maker’s office on the other. The marketing room also serves as the tasting room and is dominated by a very cool huge table. The table is actually a sheet of boiler-plate set on a chain link support.

Neil was great, telling the story of the winery and its young wine-maker, Dave Phinney. The guy is 35 years old and has been at it for years, with stints at Robert Mondavi, Opus One and Whitehall Lane. The guy’s got some talent. The winery got its name, in Dave’s words, from his parents… “Orin is my dad’s middle name and Swift is my mom’s maiden name. It just seemed the right thing to do, to name my wines after them.” (thanks go to for that quote).

Neil had opened a bottle of the incredibly tasty 2006 Prisoner (which Graham will write up in the next day or so) and we sat there and chatted. Neil, their director of marketing filled us in on the winery’s story. They started up in 2000, with a Zinfandel, which would soon become their flagship Zin blend, the Prisoner. Since then, they’ve added a Sauvignon Blanc, the Bella Dora, the Mercury Head Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and are bottling a new Bordeaux-style blend, the Papillon. Dave does a lot there, even playing a large role in the design of the labels. Hell, he even came up with the ideas for the great tables in the winery’s offices.

01292007.jpgAfter a glass of the Prisoner, we headed back out on the road. The time was already pushing 4:30pm, so we only had time to visit one more winery, so off we went to Charles Krug, North of St. Helena. Our host there, Scott, took us through their offerings.

After becoming something of a do-it-all winery in the 80’s and 90’s, the folks at Charles Krug have streamlined their offerings, taking aim at producing higher quality wines. From what we tasted, they are well on their way.

The standouts were the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville, Napa Valley (4-4.5 stars) with its coffee, licorice spice, pepper and dark ripe fruit and the 2004 Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, which had a mouthful of dark cherry and plum fruit along with dark chocolate, a dose of black pepper and a longggg finish (a solid 4.5 stars). We also really liked the 2004 Limited Release Red Wine, Voltz Vineyard with its dark and intense juicy fruit and balance (4.5 stars).

With a bottle of the 2006 Orin Swift Prisoner (thanks Neil!) in the back of the HHR, we headed into Calistoga for a quick stop at the Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery for a pint of their bloody tasty IPA. After that, it was off to Healdsburg and the Best Western Dry Creek Inn.

Dinner that night was a burger at the Bear Republic Brewing Company… and there was maybe a pint or two of beer consumed. 🙂

All in all, a pretty good start to the trip. Day 2’s write-up will be tomorrow.