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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

Larkmead, your quintessential country chic Calistoga tasting experience

Sunday, December 29, 2013
It was one of those fabulous lazy Sundays where my husband and I had finished a run/swim workout and were basking in the hot August Napa sun at St Helena’s best kept secret pool at the Health Spa Napa Valley, located directly across from the iconic local/seasonal inspired burger and shake restaurant, Gott’s Roadside - another can’t miss stop along Highway 29.  The HSNV was referred to us the summer of 2011 when we were up in Napa most weekends navigating the wedding planning tasks that our wedding at Auberge “demanded” of us. As San Francisco residents can attest, Mark Twain wasn’t lying when he penned “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”. Once late June hits, the search for warm weather and an accessible pool is on.  We couldn’t be happier to be newly minted members with access to a pool and takeout service for wine, pizza and salad from Pizzeria Tra Vigne (which shares the lot with HSNV).  

Even better, while ensconced poolside, we always seem to meet cool local Napa Valley folks - a much different demographic than the crowd that the pricey Napa hotels attracts during the busy summer months.  The locals are friendly, and typically bring a bottle to open poolside, sometimes a bottle from their own vineyard to share and chat about. It was this afternoon that I met Brynna Columb in the women’s locker room. She had overheard me having a conversation about wine with another couple and mentioned that she recently started working at Larkmead Vineyards further up the valley in Calistoga. Handing me her card, she invited me up for a tasting and within a couple weeks, we had the perfect opportunity to visit the chic, historic winery.

After some investigation, I learned that Larkmead has been part of Napa Valley's history since the late 19th Century, in fact, it was one of the four great Napa Valley wineries before prohibition and an early founder of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Located on Larkmead Lane in the Northern part of Napa Valley, near Frank Family Cellars, Larkmead focuses primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other key Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot though they also make some lovely white wines with blocks of Sauvignon Blanc and Tocai Friulano.

For a region of Napa where rarefied tasting rooms and haute tasting room culture seem to be standard, it was refreshing to arrive at Larkmead, a winery with a low key profile, that could be your aunt’s breezy country home at first glance. It’s also especially impressive that this winery in has the history, and reputation of many of the great wineries of the region, yet lacks the pomp and arrogance that can come with that legacy.  The Solari and Baker families, owners of Larkmead since 1948, have eschewed the typical ostentatious Napa winery look, opting instead for an simple elegance, one that gives testimony to the paradox that less can indeed be more. The interior of the homey reception center is cool and sophisticated, countering the warm reception we received. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Brynna with utter hospitality as she graciously poured a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and then guided us out to the back terrace for a bit of history.  The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, “Lillie,” named in honor of SF's famed Mrs. Coit is richer and more elegant than what you’d expect in a typical SB. Complex, yet cool with racy acidity, it was perfect for the warm August afternoon. This wine is available for sale only at the winery and typically sells out about a month after its annual springtime release!

Out back, we strolled out into the vines, past flowered bushes alive with hummingbirds and bees, as and learned a bit about the winery’s history and its current practices. We discussed the differences between trellising styles for different varieties, soils in different parts of the 112 acres that are under vine, and the eco-friendly practices at the winery, including the wide use of solar panels and energy conservation measures. Now it was time to get down to tasting. One of the great aspects of tasting at Larkmead are that there are several different rooms and outdoor locations that are furnished for tastings, given the size and occasion of a particular group and personal prefernece. Indoors are a few rooms filled with comfortably upholstered couches and easy chairs surrounding low, glass-topped tables. Out on the patio there are picnic tables, padded wicker chairs, or, if you want to completely feel at home, even classic rocking chairs. Tasting at Larkmead is as comfortable and relaxing as wine tasting should be.

As Brynna poured us the
2010 Firebelle, we were reminded that it was named for Mrs. Coit who had a lifelong passion for firefighters and their heroic works.  Larkmead’s land was first developed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, San Francisco’s famed philanthropist, who used to visit Larkmead as a girl and later developed it into a winery, giving it its name for the birdsong. Back then, Larkmead was considered one of the valley’s Big Four, along with legendary wineries Inglenook, Beaulieu, and Beringer. The Firebelle is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by Merlot, which is velvety and impressive, big, bold, balanced, and beautiful. Like all the wines at Larkmead, it’s 100 percent estate fruit, the product of careful and nurturing attention.

Another favorite we tasted was the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery’s signature bottling. This classic Napa Cabernet is deeply concentrated, with elegant, complex flavors, and great balance of fruit, earth and tannins; delightful now and guaranteed to impress and reward for years to come. Through both circumstance and the conscious choices of its owners over the years, Larkmead remains a boutique winery, with annual production numbers hovering around 8,000 cases. Despite construction at the winery of a new barrel and tank facility, there are no plans to budge from that number. We tasted a few more wines until the sun began to set, and it was time to call it a day. Reluctantly, we departed, though we could have easily remained on that front porch, take in the beauty of Napa, and continue drinking amazing wine.  

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