Boutique Napa Winery With a Unique Origin

Today’s Story: Phifer Pavitt

Phifer Pavitt is a boutique, family-owned winery located in the Napa Valley (Calistoga) and owned by Suzanne Phifer Pavitt and her husband Shane Pavitt. Though Suzanne grew up in rural Georgia and Shane in Manhattan Beach, CA, the couple share a love of wine and explored properties along the west coast before ultimately purchasing their property in 1998. Since their first vintage in 2005, Suzanne and Shane source their Cabernet Sauvignon from Temple Family Vineyards in Pope Valley and, since the first vintage in 2011, Sauvignon Blanc from Juliana Vineyards also in Pope Valley. Phifer Pavitt’s signature wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon named “Date Night,” is inspired by Suzanne and Shane’s weekly date night when they typically enjoy a bottle of wine and each other’s company away from work and the chaos everyday life can bring. On these weekly date nights, Suzanne and Shane seem to make decisions that greatly change their life’s scope (from career changes to family planning) so it makes sense their decision to purchase the property for Phifer Pavitt resulted from one of these nights as well. The couple’s wines are generally Bordeaux in style, and they have worked with winemaker Ted Osborne since the winery’s inception with Cabernet Sauvignon and father/father-in-law Gary Warburton with Sauvignon Blanc.

Today’s Wine: 2011 Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon

98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot; 14.5% ABV

The 2011 Date Night is medium to deep ruby in color and almost fully opaque. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry, plum, black cherry, violet, green pepper, scorched earth, chocolate, bacon fat, green herbs, crushed rock, and oak. There is some heat that needs some time to blow off as well. On the palate, I get notes of blueberry, spiced plum, blackcurrant, fig, licorice, tobacco, caramel, baking spice, wet rock, loamy soil, and smoke. This wine is medium- to full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium tannins, and a medium (+) length finish with added notes of iron and oak.

Price: $80. This is a tasty wine, but it’s up in that price-point where it faces significant competition from great value wines that I think pack a bit more of a punch for your “investment.” Pair this with roasted rack of lamb, a blue cheese burger, or braised beef short ribs.

Boutique Napa Valley Estate for Family and Friends

Today’s Story: Zakin Family Estate

Zakin Family Estate consists of 150 acres situated between 1,250 and 1,450 feet above the Napa Valley floor with southwestern exposure on Howell Mountain, though only 3.8 acres are planted to vine. Janice and Jonathan Zakin purchased the property in 1998 to build their dream home, and at the time it was undeveloped and never once planted to vine. When Jan and Jon ultimately decided to clear land and plant their vineyards, they created three distinct vineyard blocks named The Pool Block (located just below their home’s outdoor pool), The Upper Vineyard, and the Back Blocks. 2012 marked the first vintage at Zakin Family Estate, though they held it back for extra aging and released it following the 2013 and 2014 vintages. Now with five vintages bottled, the estate is starting to come into its own and produces typically between 200 and 250 cases annually.

Jon Zakin is originally from New York and found success with a career in tech entrepreneurship which also helped foster his love of French Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Jon met Jan, an OB/GYN by trade from Hawaii, in 1998 and the couple married on their new property in 1999. I had the wonderful opportunity to tour the property and taste with Jan and Jon at their home in September, 2019 and it made for one of the most intimate experiences of my recent Napa Valley visit. Jan greeted us with glasses of Rosé which we carried around the property before settling into their main dining room with a board of cheeses, charcuterie, and home-grown figs to accompany our tasting. This was an incredibly peaceful, laid back, and friendly experience where we chatted more like long-lost friends than vintner and patron meeting for the first time.

Jan and Jon hired renowned winemaker Philippe Melka after fixating on a dream to create world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe grew up in Bordeaux and earned his Geology degree from the University of Bordeaux before his foray into wine at Château Haut-Brion. While at Haut-Brion, Philippe completed a masters program in Agronomy and Enology though with his passion for Cabernet Sauvignon blends ventured out to learn more. Philippe ultimately spent time at Dominus Estate (Napa Valley), Chittering Estate (Australia), Badia O Coltibuono (Chianti, Italy), and Chateau Petrus (Bordeaux) before settling down in Napa Valley and starting Melka Wines alongside his successful consulting business. Philippe is joined by vineyard manager Jim Barbour who has an impressive resume of his own, including work for Hundred Acre, Grace Family, Checkerboard, Blankiet Estate, Revana, Gandona Estate, Keever, Husic, Pillar Rock, and more over his roughly 40 year career.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Cabernet Franc (no tech sheet); 14.7% ABV

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is opaque deep purple/ruby in color. I let this decant for 3 hours before serving and it certainly needed every minute of air. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry purée, spiced plum, blueberry, redcurrant, graphite, tobacco leaf, black volcanic soil, clove, and oak. On the palate, I get notes of blackcurrant, black plum, black cherry, slate, charred rocky earth, baking spice, cracked black pepper, a touch of vanilla, and oak. This is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) but fine-grained tannins, and a long finish with notes of mocha and crushed rock. The wine is incredibly powerful while showcasing gorgeous mountain fruit, though you can tell there is an elegance starting to breach with more bottle age.

Price: $260 purchased at on-site tasting. It is a treat tasting wines from Zakin, whose production typically falls between 200-250 cases annually, as these are made in an opulent style that is utterly delicious and built for the long haul. Pair this with steak au poivre, herb-grilled leg of lamb, or blue cheese.

Premium Cabernet Sauvignon From a Boutique Napa Vineyard

Today’s Story: Adler Deutsch Vineyard

Adler Deutsch Vineyard is a very small, 2-acre vineyard located on the edge of the West Rutherford Bench and owned by vintners Bob Adler and Alexis Deutsch-Adler. ADV works with Cabernet Sauvignon (though some of their wines can be a blend of around 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot) to produce highly limited and premium wines amounting to a mere couple hundred cases each vintage. Bob and Alexis work very closely with their workers in the vineyard, particularly their winemaker Aaron Pott. Aaron studied Enology at the University of California-Davis before taking a position at Newton under John Kongsgaard, where he also met famed consultant Michel Rolland who helped him land positions in France at Château Troplong Mondot and Château La Tour Figeac. While in France, Aaron received a master’s degree in Viticulture from the Université de Bourgogne and worked for six years before returning to the US at Beringer as their winemaker for the French, Italian, and South American brands. Aaron also worked at St. Clement and Quintessa before establishing his own label, Pott Wine, and consulting for Napa Valley wineries. ADV practices sustainable farming methods with a dedication to ensuring their vineyard thrives for decades to come.

Today’s Wine: 2011 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.8% ABV

The 2011 Estate Reserve is almost entirely opaque and deep ruby in color with dark purple hues. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry, blackcurrant, plum, cherry, redcurrant, pencil shavings, sweet tobacco, loamy soil, pepper, milk chocolate, vanilla, and oak. On the palate, I get notes of wild blueberry, blackberry, crème de cassis, black raspberry, cigar box, graphite, scorched earth, cedar, clove, blood, and blue florals. This wine is full-bodied with high acidity, medium (+) tannins, and a long finish dominated by black fruit, cocoa, and dried earth.

Price: $90 (though this appears unavailable in retail markets). This is an outstanding wine that drinks well above its price point for both quality and rarity. ADV only produces a couple hundred cases of wine each year, but if you manage to find some it’s worth a try. Pair this with grilled NY strip steak, black-pepper-crusted Ahi tuna, or rosemary lamb steak.

A California Titan

Today’s Story: Diamond Creek Vineyards

Diamond Creek was established in 1968 by Al Brounstein, a former pharmaceuticals wholesaler based in Southern California. During the 1960s, Al desired a career change and discovered a 70 acre property on Diamond Mountain which he believed to be perfect for producing wine and offer him a new venture. In 1966 before Al owned the property, he smuggled vine cuttings from two Premier Cru properties in Bordeaux (they are a secret) by personally flying them up through Tijuana, Mexico to a nursery in St. Helena, California. When Al finally purchased the property in 1967 and began planting in 1968, he established three separate blocks differentiated by their soil composition: Red Rock Terrace (7 acres), Gravelly Meadow (5 acres), and Volcanic Hill (8 acres). In addition to these three mainstays, there exists a 0.75 acre vineyard on the property named Lake Vineyard, and wines from this vineyard are only bottled in particularly outstanding vintages. Though the wines today are typically a blend of Bordeaux varietals, Diamond Creek was established with the idea of producing exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon.

I had the opportunity to taste at Diamond Creek and tour the property in September, 2018 and I included some pictures at the end of this post.

Today’s Wine: 2016 Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon

88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot; 14.5% ABV

The 2016 Volcanic Hill is opaque deep ruby in color with purple hues. Once this opens up in the decanter, the nose showcases aromas of blackberry, plum, crème de cassis, redcurrant, licorice, graphite, tobacco, damp earth, gravel, and oak. In the mouth, the wine reveals notes of blackcurrant, ripe plum, blueberry, black cherry, violet, cigar box, dark chocolate, cinnamon, crushed rock, dried green herbs, and a touch of charred oak. This wine is full-bodied with high acidity, high tannins, and a long finish. Superb bottling from Diamond Creek.

Price: $250. Diamond Creek is always exceptional and even though we committed infanticide with this bottle of a restaurant wine list its potential is monstrous. Give this at least another 7-10 years of aging and pair it with filet mignon, grilled game meat (like bison and elk), or roasted lamb.

From My Visit:

A view of the vineyards from the tasting room.
Property tour by golf cart.
The property’s lake (above) and Lake Vineyard (below).

Outstanding Marriage of Howell Mountain and Valley Floor Cabernet Sauvignon

Today’s Story: Dunn Vineyards

Dunn Vineyards dates to 1979 when Randy and Lori Dunn purchased a 14 acre parcel in Angwin with about 5 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Randy worked as a winemaker in Rutherford for his day job, he spent the nights and weekends with Lori and their young son Mike farming their vines. The Dunn family also farmed Harry Frank’s adjacent vineyards and purchased the fruit resulting in a first harvest of 9 tons of fruit. With an additional purchase of 3 tons from Beatty Ranch, the Dunn’s were on their way to producing their first vintage. The family moved onto their property shortly thereafter with another young child, Jennifer, and Dunn Vineyards was officially bonded in 1981. After their second daughter, Kristina, was born, Randy was still working in Rutherford when the winery’s success picked up and encouraged him to leave his job in 1985 to move into a new family house and put all of their effort into Dunn Vineyards. By the late 1980s, Randy was consulting for other wineries, their wine was selling out, and the family needed to burrow into the mountain in 1989 to create more room for barrels. Mike returned in 1999 and three years later became a full-time employee at Dunn Vineyards and after Kristina graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in winemaking and viticulture she joined as well. Today, Kristina’s daughters play in the vineyards and Mike’s son helps bottle the wines, making it seem the family tradition at Dunn Vineyards is set to continue into three generations and beyond. Today, the family farms 42 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon high up on Howell Mountain and the resulting wines are elegant yet profound and built for cellaring.

Today’s Wine: 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 13.9% ABV

The 2014 Napa Cab is opaque deep purple/ruby in color. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of blackcurrant, blackberry, plum, black cherry, redcurrant, red licorice, cedar, tobacco, loamy earth, graphite, green herbs, and a touch of vanilla. On the palate, the wine displays notes of blackberry, crème de cassis, black cherry, black raspberry, charred earth, smoke, pencil shavings, chocolate, and oak. This wine is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, grippy high tannins, and a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $90. Dunn always produces exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon and this is relatively a good value, however I would spend the extra money to buy their Howell Mountain bottling which is consistently one of my favorites. These wines are built for the long haul as well, as I’ve tasted them back to the 1980s and each was fantastic. Pair with filet mignon, roasted lamb, or pepper-crusted ahi tuna.

Napa People-Pleaser of Palpable Quality

Today’s Story: John Anthony Vineyards

John Anthony Vineyards was established by John Anthony Truchard and his wife Michele after he planted his own vineyards during the late 1990s and harvested his first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in 2003. A second generation vintner, John learned a great deal about farming and winemaking at an early age working alongside his father at Truchard Vineyards. When he was in his early 20s, John started his own vineyard management company and farmed vineyards on nights and weekends before ultimately planting his own fruit and securing long-term leasing agreements to foster his dream of bottling his own wine. John selected Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhône clones when he planted his vineyards and the resulting wines are elegant and terroir-driven while each showcasing a unique place. John oversees the entire winemaking process from vineyard to cellar and bottles his wines into four distinct categories: AVA Series, Single Vineyard, Reserve, and The One. The wine I’m reviewing today falls into the Single Vineyard category, with other options being Crane Vineyard, Church Vineyard, and Coombsville District.

Note: John and Michele also started JaM Cellars in 2009 with the goal of producing affordable yet quality wines. They started with a bold, fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon priced under $20 but have since expanded the portfolio to include Butter Chardonnay, Toast Sparkling, and Candy Rosé.

Today’s Wine: 2009 Oak Knoll District Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 15.2% ABV

The 2009 Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon is opaque deep garnet in color with ruby hues and pale garnet variation near the rim of the glass. Once this opens up, the nose showcases aromas of ripe red cherry, dried raspberry, redcurrant, blueberry, cedar, chocolate, clay, musky tobacco, red licorice, and truffle. On the palate, I get notes of dusty blackberry, ripe blueberry, cherry, jammy plum, tobacco leaf, black tea, graphite, forest floor, green garden herbs, coffee, and oak. This wine is medium- to full-bodied with medium acidity, velvety and integrated medium (-) tannins, and a long finish dominated by notes of rose and licorice.

Price: $80 on release (the current vintage 2015 sells for $125 at the winery). This is drinking really well right now and it is not as jammy/fruit-forward as some of the wines from John Anthony I’ve had prior. I still think this fits into the people-pleasing camp but today’s typical Cab lover would enjoy this. Pair with filet mignon, herb-roasted lamb, or mature hard cheeses.

Revisiting an Old Friend

Today’s Story: Gargiulo Vineyards

Gargiulo is a small, family-owned winery in Oakville, Napa Valley that produces about 3,400 cases of wine each year from two vineyards. Owners Jeff and Valerie Gargiulo bought their first vineyard, Money Road Ranch, in 1992 to fulfill their winemaking dream, adding to the property in 1997 by purchasing the 575 OVX property. Founded as a Cabernet Sauvignon estate, Gargiulo produces three different Cabs and a Sangiovese, though they also have Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Merlot planted for blending in their G Major 7 Cab. Gargiulo produces small amounts of Chardonnay from Frank Wood Ranch and a rosé of Sangiovese as well.

I recently reviewed Gargiulo’s 2009 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon in Gotta Get That Money (Road), so I thought it would be interesting to check in on the 2012 vintage while it is still fresh in my mind. Earlier, I reviewed Gargiulo’s 2015 Aprile Sangiovese in Italy’s Favorite Grape…from California?.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Money Road Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.6% ABV

The 2012 Money Road Ranch Cab is deep ruby/purple in color and almost entirely opaque. Once this opens up, the wine showcases aromas of blackberry jam, crème de cassis, wild blueberry, spiced plum, redcurrant, green herbs, tobacco, fresh leather, black volcanic soil, slate, and toasted oak. On the palate, I get notes of black cherry, juicy plum, boysenberry, licorice, cedar, damp rocky earth, ground black peppercorn, black tea, cardamom, and a hint of vanilla. This wine is medium- to full-bodied with moderate acidity, remarkably integrated and velvety medium (-) tannins, and a medium (+) length finish that adds notes of iron and smoke. Though you can certainly draw the parallels between the 2009 and 2012 vintages in terms of style and expression, the 2012 is certainly more elegant and velvety in its mouthfeel where I felt the 2009 was a bit more jammy and syrupy. 1,236 cases produced.

Price: $80 direct from the winery upon release. This is a very solid vintage for the Money Road Ranch bottling and, alongside the 2007 and 2013 vintages, one of my favorites that I’ve tried. Pair this with filet mignon, pepper-crusted ahi tuna, or lamb.