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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Raymond is Napa's Must-Visit Experiential Winery

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I met Jean Charles Boisset at a holiday party at the San Francisco Wine Center in 2010 where he was jovially pouring beautifully balanced wine from the French Boisset Family collection while unintentionally being the life of the party.  Though he invited me to come visit any of the wineries in his family’s California portfolio (which includes Buena Vista, Raymond, and DeLoach), it took me almost two years and about a dozen  recommendations to realize I had to go find out what all the buzz about Raymond was all about.  It turns out, Raymond far surpassed my expectations in its experiential and marketing genius and the quality of the wines themselves.  Raymond Vineyards now tops my list of favorites wineries to recommend to friends from out of town and local wine snobs alike - offering a unique and rarefied, yet down to earth experience that nobody who  visits Napa should miss.

To give just a glimmer of history, Raymond Vineyards was founded in 1970 by Roy Raymond with his two sons and is now under the helm of Jean-Charles Boisset, the proprietor of Boisset Family Estates, Director of Winemaking Stephanie Putnam, Assistant Winemaker Kathy George, and Vineyard Manager Eric Pooler.  Raymond has become known for its elegantly powerful yet balanced wines which are made from 301 acres of vineyards spanning the Napa Valley including 210 from their Jameson Canyon Vineyards, 81 from their Rutherford Estate and 10 from their St. Helena Estate. Raymond’s fame is its red wine especially its Cabernet Sauvignon, although the Merlot is best in class as well. Raymond also makes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Meritage blends in red and white.

What makes this particular winery so extraordinary is that it goes beyond the traditional wine tasting route which involves didactic instruction on what you are drinking, suggests a wine club membership and sends you on your way.  Raymond gives visitors an interactive experience that’s rarefied yet playful and completely unforgettable.  The first thing you’d notice when you walk on their grounds is the 1.5 acre “Theater of Nature”, which was created with the concept to educate visitors on the importance of sustainable, Biodynamic and organic farming.  This self-guided area gives guests an opportunity toexplore at their own pace or use their smartphones to download an audio guided tour.  I was enthralled by the variety of vegetables, flowers and fruit trees and learned that there must be 500 different species on a property for it to be Demeter certified as Biodynamic.  The property also includes farm animals like goats, sheep, peacocks and chickens, owl perches and bee hives.  

Next to the Theater of Nature is a tribute to Frenchie, the French Bulldog Jean Charles brought home to his wife, Gina, to keep her company while he was travelling since “he always wants her to be in the care and company of a French gentleman”.  The Chateau Frenchie pathway leads guests to Frenchie Winery – a stable-like structure that holds five luxurious stalls complete with specially designed wine barrel dog beds, “Barkarrat’ chandeliers and exquisite artwork showcasing the label designs of Frenchie’s own wine label. This is where your dogs can rest while you savor wines in the tasting room. A doggie-cam is installed in Chateau Frenchie so you can keep an eye on your pooch while you sip in the main tasting room.

I wanted to stay outside and play, but Bill Farmer, our genial guide for the day, convinced me that a visit inside Raymond would be just as enthralling.  We skipped the usual tour of the crush pad and entered the “blending room”, which sort of resembles a mix between a science lab and Studio 54. The rock star room is decorated with a disco ball, white walls, velvet curtains, and ice blue neon lighting and provides guests with an array of futuristic looking silver lamé lab coats. This blending experience of a lifetime is “70 percent fun and 30% education” and involves blending the Raymond current release wines and bottling them with custom labels that are custom designed by guests in advance with Raymond’s expert guidance.  I thought the experience couldn’t get any better, and definitely started dreaming up a number of fun and fabulous fetes I could host there, until Bill led us into the Crystal Cellar.

The Crystal Cellar has a sultry, club-like atmosphere, is flanked by working stainless steel vats that second as walls, mirrored bar and the luxury crystal Baccarat chandeliers for which it’s named.  The room is a marketing/partnership work of genius as it features some of Baccarat’s beautiful crystal jewelry, decanters, glassware and figurines for guests to purchase as keepsakes. In this particular room, they have a special flight of four different vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon which guests can taste - but we had other plans.

We continued to walk through the sexy laborinth of Raymond’s interior through several tasting rooms which can be used for private wine tasting and educational classes like the Barrel Room, Blending Room, and the Rutherford Room. The Barrel Room is surrounded by oak barrels on all sides and illuminated by candlelight; an intimate area to sample their wines as a group.  The Rutherford Room is an educational room created by one of Napa Valley’s preeminent American wine author of The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil. This room displays samples of various areas of Napa Valley’s soil in large glass jars and a map of Napa with its own appelations to distinguish how these differences of terroir affects the wines you drink from a certain region.

One of my favorite passageways was the brilliantly conceived “Corridor of Senses” created to enhance or a wine taster’s vocabulary for taste, smell and color of wines. Visitors can touch different patches of fabric to compare what wine’s like on the palate (velvet, satin, silk, bubbly). 
The aroma wall features vile-like atomizers that one can squeeze to smell a certain scent like chocolate, blackberries, truffle, that you might smell in a glass of wine.

The final room we visited prior to tasting was The Red Room, an exclusive room for Raymond’s members. This very red room is masculine, dark and handsomely decorated to resemble a French inspired speakeasy with plush velvety furniture, games like pool, chess, and poker, two private bars, and more gorgeous Baccarat chandeliers.  We concluded our tour in the Library room - an exclusive room that offers vertical wine tastings of some of Raymond’s older vintages dating back to 1974. After sipping through a flight of beautiful red wines, we were relaxed and enamored and ended up chatting with Bill for over an hour before bidding him farewell and taking a few final shots outside with the whimsical picture frames that offer guests one last playful experience before they part.  My tasting notes below:

2011 Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay: 89 Points, Wine Spectator
Aluring aromas of orange blossom and honeysuckle and displaying flavors of pear, apple and lemon before ending with a long, rich finish.

2008 Rutherford Merlot: 87 Points, Wine Spectator
The wine has aromas of tea, blackberry pie and kalamata olive with hints of blood orange, wet stone and lavender. On the palate, bold flavors of mixed red and black berries are layered with the earthiness of clay and stone, with smooth tannins for a long, toasty finish.

2008 S. Helena Cab: 91 Points, Wine Enthusiast
Aromas of dark red fruit, tobacco, orange tea and sandalwood permeate the glass.  Flavors of black cherry and dark chocolate lead to a long, velvety, elegant finish.

2008 Rutherford Cab: 92 Points, Wine Enthusiast
Luscious aromas of decadent dark chocolate, plum, framboise and brown sugar lift from the glass while luscious notes of black licorice and cola complete the rich bouquet. This classic Rutherford Cabernet is big and chewy with structured tannins and flavors of cedar, espresso beans and mulling spices.

2008 Generations Cab: 94 Points, Wine Enthusiast
The wine displays elegant aromas of cardamon, baking spice and slight hints of dried cherries and vanilla.  A full, supple mouthfeel is complemented by flavors of black cherry, star anise, and rich dark chocolate.

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