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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

Whetstone Wine Cellars - Sip luxury pinot noir in a down to earth Chateau

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
The Experience: Expertly crafted, high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir enjoyed in a gorgeous Chateau setting with a relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and unique personal touches makes for a charming experience for a wide demographic. Wine connoisseurs will love the varied portfolio of elegant pinot noirs, couples will find the second level mezzanine “sweetheart tables” the perfect place to enjoy wine and romantic ambiance while overlooking the ambient tasting lounge below, and groups will adore (in warm seasons), the expansive lawn, cornhole and picnic tables.  Whetstone’s tasting room, located on Atlas Peak Road near Silverado Country Club, is housed in the aforementioned 19th Century French-style Chateau which was built by Hamden W. McIntyre, a winery design expert with a portfolio that includes historic wineries Trefethen, BV and Rubicon.  

First Impressions: Though we actually arrived early, two friendly young female tasting room staff welcomed us warmly and immediately offered to snap a group photo for us despite being busy with several other groups they were also tending to. According to Michelle, one of the winery owners, the staff she hires help with everything from writing the tasting notes, to planning events and even helping out with a recent wedding proposal that took place at Whetstone, inspired by a couple’s previous visit. Everyone was smiling, even dancing to the cheerful music playing; their joy and passion for their work (if you’d even call it that) evident. Michelle herself took plenty of care in welcoming us personally, and spending time with us throughout our visit - the consummate hostess.

The Team: Jamie Whetstone, winemaker, started his winemaking career working at Turley Wine Cellars in 1998 where Turley famously made each member of the diverse team learn how to change a clutch on a tractor before moving on to more specialized roles.  Jamie worked with Turley through 8 vintages and after taking a sabbatical and working for the Seysses family at Domaine Dujac in France, he returned to Napa where Turley helped him get his start making his first Whetstone  wine.  In 2005, Jamie left Turley to break out on his own and focus his energy entirely on Whetstone. He soon brought his wife, Michelle, onboard to help manage every aspect of the customer experience, from the design of the tasting room to sales, marketing and event planning. Originally from Napa, Michelle has a background in interior design which is evident when you walk into the chateau and delight in the “Restoration Hardware elegant” meets “Etsy-craftsy” meets “country chic” interior.  No detail goes unnoticed, from cozy furniture groupings to the finer details like feather quills used to scribe tasting notes and the gourmet (and highly addictive) savory rosemary almonds served with the wine tasting.  Michelle believes in the value of face to face interaction; her authentic style engaged my family at length during the tasting. Simply refreshing in an industry which tends to be dominated by elaborate, and often impersonal tasting rooms filled with antiseptic staff. While we didn’t get to meet Jamie, rumor has it that he is just as down to earth and authentic as Michelle, not to mention a pretty talented winemaker. Michelle notes that Jamie was once offered a winemaking role at famed cult winery, Screaming Eagle, but turned down the prestigious job to pursue his own eponymous brand, which gives you an idea of his winemaking talent.

The wines: Whetstone focuses primarily on Pinot and Chardonnay from different Napa and Sonoma valley regions because “it’s what we like to drink” says Michelle.  Jamie was inspired by pinot noir after his experiences working in France and this expression is evident in the elegance, complexity and almost feminine quality of the pinots we tasted, each layered with flavors ranging from bergamont to rosepetals to baking chocolate. The “Jon Boat” pinot blends grapes from different vineyards, while the “Bella Vigne” and Russian River pinot are harvested from a single vineyard.  In addition to the Whetstone label, the team has recently co-founded the Manifesto brand with Henri Gabriel. Manifesto rounds out the varietal portfolio including a Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel, all offered at very reasonable price-points. Despite being economical, these wines are beautifully crafted and ideal for events hosted at Whetstone’s chateau (think wedding dinners perfection!).

What’s Next: Whetstone just recently joined the acclaimed Terroir portfolio - the wine collection founded by Charles Banks (cult winery Screaming Eagle’s owner) that focuses on wines known for their quality, typicity, character and value. Aside from being a great honor to join the group, Whetstone will now gain additional resources freeing them up to spend more doing what they do best - making excellent wine and crafting personal wine centered experiences. Whetstone’s current production is at currently 4,000 cases of wine and while they intend to keep it a boutique winery, they would eventually like to increase production to around 10,000 cases.

Unique Offering: The Whetstones are more than winemakers - they are entertainers who share their wine with visitors offering a lingering, memorable experience.  When starting out on their own, Michelle and Jamie had an idea to start hosting wine-paired lunches in the vineyard before they opened the official tasting room. “It was like a pop up restaurant before those were even popular!” notes Michelle. At one of these wine pairing lunches, they partnered with a famous chef friend, Michael Chiarello, and the event was picked up for an in depth article by Food and Wine Magazine. After the article went to press, inquiries for Whetstone skyrocketed and the couple knew it was time to find a home to continue on their events and tastings. They eventually found the chateau and spent 2.5 years renovating before opening the doors in 2013.  In Napa, weddings are not permitted by law at wineries, however, since the Whetstones don’t make wine at the chateau, it’s considered a “tasting room/tavern” and so weddings and other social events are permitted - a rare find for couples looking for a magical environment to tie the knot.  The large lawn is ideal for hosting concerts during the summer and the team has hosted up to 150 people there at a time in the warmer months.  The chateau also features an upstairs with a large terrace, dining room, bedrooms and a kitchen, which can be rented for events.

Visit Details: It’s highly recommended to call at least 24 hours in advance to arrange a tasting as there is no tasting bar, but rather a number of different “settings” in which you can enjoy a tasting of four of Whetstone’s current release wines.  Visits are $25 per person generally, though catering and other special requests can be accommodated by contacting Michelle Whetstone directly - michelle@whetstonewinecellars.com (707)254-0600.

Winemaker’s Tasting Notes:

2012 Carneros Chardonnay “Jon Boat” - $45, 500 cases produced
Stainless steel fermented - half the wine was 100% French oak-aged in neutral barrels and the other half remained in stainless steel sur lees. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. Very big nose full of pineapple, mango, key lime and white peach. Secondary aromas of Banana Runt candies, green apple and gardenia. Ripe, medium bodied flavors of apricot, pear and quince. Secondary hints of licorice, key lime, green apple and petrol.

2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir “Jon Boat” - $50, 675 Cases produced
Stainless steel fermented, 100% French oak-aged in 20% new barrels. Bottled unfined, unfiltered. Big nose full of bing cherry cola, rose petals, forest floor, mint tea, and juniper.  Secondary aromas of vanilla, saddle leather, nutmeg and hints of tobacco. Medium to full bodied flavors of plum, Bing cherry, and blackberry pie. Long finish of ripe cranberry, anise and Baker’s chocolate.

2013 Russian River Pinot Noir “Pleasant Hill” - $55, 450 cases produced
Aged in 40% new French oak barrels, sur lees. Gorgeous dark cherry color and big, luxurious nose of dark, ripe cherry, tangerine, bergamont, and floral notes of rose petal. Secondary hints of orange pekoe tea, Chinese Five spice and a touch of tarragon.  Big, silky flavors of dark cherry and blueberry with afterthoughts of right pomegranite and tangerine tea and a finish of Bing cherry and Baker’s chocolate.

2012 Sonoma Coast PInot Noir “Bella Vigna” - $85, 200 cases produced
Stainless steel fermented, 100% new French oak-aged in 35% new oak barrels.  Bottled unfined, unfiltered. Diverse nose of spicy rhubarb, wild strawberry jam, clove, red meats and “animale”. Secondary aromas of Asian soy, orange pekoe, tea and sage. Ripe flavors of cranberry, rhubarb, dark Bing cherry tea and baker’s chocolate. Finishes long with Bing cherries, crushed mint candies and hints of white pepper.

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