Vintners You Should Know

FISHER–The Winemaking Family

Unlike most wineries in the Napa/Sonoma area, Fisher is not easy to find.  There’s no glamorous tasting room and gift shop on Route 29, no group tours, and no slick commercial roadside presence.  Rather, you have to be willing to go up in the hills – way up – to enjoy the hospitality they’re always eager to extend.

From the Calistoga side, you wind your way up Porter Creek Road, branch off at Calistoga Road, then hang a hard left again onto St. Helena Road, which runs along the very top of the Mayacamas mountain ridge, and forms the border between the Napa and Sonoma regions.  “We knew we wanted mountain fruit,” Juelle Fisher told me.  Well, they got it, because you can’t get any higher up in the mountains than they are.

 And the wines?  Extraordinary.  At a recent extremely-well-attended Fisher wine dinner at Angelina’s Ristorante in Southwest Florida, Juelle poured a selection that included the Fisher Mountain Estate Chardonnay, The Unity Napa Valley 2006, Fisher “Cameron” Napa Valley, and their flagship Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon 2005.  There wasn’t any left over.

Juelle and Fred Fisher

Juelle and her husband Fred started the winery from scratch in 1973, locating just the land they wanted.  When they cleared it of the trees, they milled the lumber to build the winery and associated structures.  Now, more than three decades later, they also farm 57 acres on the Silverado Trail adjacent to the famed Eisele Vineyard, and encourage their children Whitney, Cameron, and Robert in their efforts to continue the family tradition.

Today, after 37 years, she’s content to watch her three children achieve their own success at running the family business, while she travels around the world as an ambassador for Fisher wines.

Family.  It’s an important word to Juelle, who maintains that “the family is in the wine.”  She understands that when visitors meet the family who makes the wines, they gain an added understanding of the ground, the grapes, and the mission of the company.  “When you find a wine you like, you have to go there,” she says.  “When you do, you understand the emotional and spiritual part of what we do.”

The Wedding Vineyard

And, as we have all discovered, the love of good wine opens us to relationships with new friends and interesting people.  “Our visitors enrich our lives,” says Juelle.  “Wine makes us meet amazing people.”

She’s right.  After all, I met her, didn’t I?

WINEMAKERS — Peter Lehmann is the Happiest Aussie

I’ve met lots of people from Australia over the years, and every one of them has been genial, jovial, and jocular (pardon the alliteration).  I don’t mean to cast any cultural stereotypes, here, and I’ve never met the folks from Peter Lehmann winery, but you can tell just by looking that they seem to embody the optimism and cheer of the general Australian culture.  (If my family made wine like they do, I’d be happy all the time, too).

I’ve always maintained that wine is a cultural artifact, and that’s certainly true of the juice from Down Under.  Unlike wines from other regions I could name, it’s easy to get to know Australian wines.  Not only are they approachable, but they come right up to you, yell “G’day, Mate,” and give you a slap on the back that just about knocks the wind out of you.

 Consistently rated better than 90 points by Wine Spectator, Lehmann’s Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Semillon, and Chardonnay offer big, satisfying, mouthfilling flavors that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed over the years.

 You’d get plenty of argument (and maybe a fistfight or two) if you tried to decide which region of Australia produces the best wines, but you can be sure that Barossa Valley will always be in the forefront of the conversation.  In Barossa, the soil, the climate, the rainfall, all the elements wine grapes love, have come together, making the wine industry the major economic engine of the area.

Since the first vines were planted in the 1840s, Barossa has grown into a major center of the country’s wine industry.  Even wineries not based in the region have a significant presence there, either cultivating their own vineyards or contracting with small growers.

 Better yet, it’s a mere kangaroo hop away from the city of Adelaide, which makes it a major destination for wine tourists.  In fact, it’s closer to the city than Napa is to San Francisco.  The vineyards start right at the edge of the suburbs.

 Now, about Peter Lehmann.  It’s said that he is to Barossa what Robert Mondavi was to Napa.  A pioneer who, when the government was pressuring grape growers to rip up their vines, pledged to buy what they grew so they could stay in business.  The family continues that practice to this day, sourcing grapes from almost 200 small family growers who cultivate 900 individual vineyards.  I’m told that many of the farmers are direct descendants of families who planted the first vines over 100 years ago, and at least some of the business is still done on a handshake basis. Unfortunately, he passed away in August of 2013, and will most definitely be missed.

And speaking of those vineyards, they are among the oldest in the world, still flourishing on their original rootstock because the area was spared the ravages of the phylloxera epidemic that just about wiped out the world’s wine industry years ago.  That means the roots go deep, and the vines yield big, concentrated wines. The Lehmanns take that big fruit and fashion 12 reds and whites that put all kinds of power, finesse, and elegance in your glass.

 No worries, mate.

WINEMAKERS: Andrew Geoffrey Enjoys the View

Peter Thompson meets us at the bottom of Diamond Mountain Road just southeast of Calistoga, and bids us follow him up the hill to his vineyard.  Good thing, too, because we never would have found it on our own.  The road runs up Diamond Mountain at about a 50-degree angle, and the Andrew Geoffrey prime real estate is about as close to the top as you can get.

Peter is another successful winemaker who followed the dream, abandoning his legal practice in San Diego (following in the footsteps of Chateau Montelena’s Jim Barrett, who did exactly the same thing), and moving north to Napa Valley.  He bought 60 acres in the Diamond Mountain district, cleared 13 of them, and planted some very fine Cabernet Sauvignon.

Peter Thompson (L) and Jerry

The view is spectacular.  All of Napa valley is spread below, and Peter constructed a kind of party platform at the vineyard’s highest point, with coolers, tables, and shade, so visitors can sit comfortably, enjoy his major-league Cabernet, and soak up the view.

Named after his two sons, Andrew Geoffrey produces just enough premier-quality Cabernet Sauvignon to get Peter some national distribution.  However, in his pursuit of quality he limits yields so strictly that only several hundred cases are available each year.  For example, in 2008 he picked less than 17 tons, which works out to one ton per acre.  Miniscule.

Mount St. Helena from Andrew Geoffrey vineyard

But the proof is in the bottle, and in the soil.  There are many prime growing sites in the Napa area, as we all know, but few of them have attained the reputation and prestige of Diamond Mountain.  From the Brounstein’s Diamond Creek brand to the more boutique efforts of Teachworth, this particular hill has always produced outstanding wines, and Peter’s Cabernet, since 2001, has supported the stature of the area.

Andrew Geoffrey is labeled as a Cabernet Sauvignon, because it contains more than 75% of that grape, but the vineyard actually contains a few rows of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which Peter blends in to add structure, perfume, and elegance.

It won’t be easy, but if you see Andrew Geoffrey on a wine list or on a shelf, buy it.  The wines, if not sold out, can also be ordered from the winery.  It’s one of our favorites.

WINEMAKERS: V Madrone — The Tilleys Come Home

Finding people who were actually born and raised in Napa Valley isn’t as difficult as finding a native Floridian, but it’s close.  Many of the wine country natives we know are the children of people who have owned wineries for decades (generations, even) and grew up in the vineyards.

Ghost Winery Barn & Tasting Room

Then there are the Chris Tilleys of the world.  He went to St. Helena High School, then, for some insane reason, left the area to seek his fortune in the larger world.  After finding it, he came back with his absolutely charming wife Pauline, bought 3-1/4 acres on St. Helena Highway, and (surprise!) planted grapevines.  Good ones.

 He also bought what is know in the local vernacular as a “ghost winery.”  This bears a bit of explanation, because they’re mostly not haunted, but Chris swears that his place is.

On October 29, 1919, Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto of the Volstead Act, and Prohibition became the law of the land.  We all know how that turned out.  One of the effects, predictably enough, was to put almost every winery in the country out of business.  Many of the owners simply locked up with all the equipment in place, walked away, and never opened again.  Chris and Pauline bought one. 

 When V Madrone was established in 1883, it was a country resort, and the owner August Hersch produced Cabernet Sauvignon on the property.  After Prohibition, the resort became a lodge and restaurant, and passed from hand to hand until the Tilleys acquired it in 2001.

Here’s the good part.  It seems that Napa County use permits, which allow properties to be used for specified purposes (like wineries) don’t actually expire.  That meant the property was eligible to become a winery again instead of just a grape farm, so Chris and Pauline jumped at the chance.

 Swimming against the economic currents, things are going well.  They expanded their selection from one excellent Cabernet to include a Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah. (I love Petite Sirah, and never understood why it’s such a tough sell in the general market).

So they’ve covered most of the bases, winemakingwise.

 To purchase their wines, or even arrange a winery visit, go to

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