Natalie McLean, Homefront's wine expert is Canada's most quoted wine writer and editor of the country's largest wine review website. Here is a sample from her recent choices for us.

The legendary Napa Valley

Vineyard picnics and grand feasts in wine caves turn into late summer blending parties and discussions about the best time to harvest. It’s been another good year here in Napa and the winemakers are happy. We’re here to tour, taste and be tutored, and we’re also checking into some of the finest places to stay.

hf_napa2Just moments after leaving the Silverado Trail, we cross a bridge under a canopy of old-growth trees and enter the seclusion of one of wine country’s most sought-after places to stay: the Calistoga Ranch. Set among ancient oaks and redwoods on 157 pastoral acres within a private canyon, the resort is both a hotel and a private residence club for those keen to have a second home in northern California’s bucolic wine country.

hf_napayogaA sanctuary in the forest
Dotted throughout the property are 48 cedar-shingled guest lodges and 23 owner lodges. Some feel like tree houses; others create the illusion that they are floating above a stream. They’ve been built in a variety of sizes—all with the finest amenities and spacious bathrooms with “under-the-stars” outdoor bath gardens. Ultra-livable decks, complete with fireplaces for those “grape growing friendly” cooler nights, extend living spaces.hf_napaFood

Discreetly blending into these surroundings are The Bathhouse spa, with its creek-side pavilions and healing waters, and the highly favoured (albeit a little too stiff for our taste) Lakehouse restaurant, which overlooks Lake Lommel. The greenhouse supplies fresh produce daily and the on-site Sotero Vineyard, under the direction of winemaker Kirk Venge, produces exquisite Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Guests can enjoy viticulture and winemaking sessions as well as private dining in Calistoga’s wine cave, which is carved deep into the hillside. (Owners enjoy storage privileges and private lockers in the cave, too.)

More than cellar-door tastings
Venturing off-property means “try-it-for-the-first-time” adventures: hot air ballooning down the valley, indulging in a private tasting or two at a boutique winery and brag-about nine-course dinners at Yountville’s famous French Laundry. Or, as in our case, seizing a rare opportunity to interact with a select few of the region’s preeminent winemakers, whose spirit of innovation, craftsmanship and camaraderie goes into creating some of the world’s most sought-after wines.

hf_napachrisLet’s take a closer look at some of the wineries in Napa and next-door Sonoma County, where we were treated to private tastings with the winemakers.


Beringer
Stags’ Leap
Winemaker: Christophe Paubert
Located in a charmed valley in the very heart of the Stags Leap District, this 240-acre wine estate was one of the first in the region. Founded in 1893 by Horace Chase and his wife Minnie Mizner Chase, the daughter of a prominent San Franciscan, Stags’ Leap became known for its gracious manor and guest house (which still stand), its stone winery and the first wine storage caves on the east side. Today, with its unique terroir and ideal microclimate, Stags’ hf_napaMargoLeap winemaker Christopher Paubert continues the tradition.
www.stagsleap.com

Beringer
Winemaker: Laurie Hook
The epitome of a modern classic, Beringer has been a benchmark producer in the Napa Valley since 1876. The oldest operating winery in the region has, according to winemaker, Laurie

hf_napaJohnHook, “Amassed a unique collection of fantastic vineyards, each with its own distinctive soil, climate and terrain.” You might recognize Bancroft Ranch, Chabot, Gamble Ranch and Knights Valley, and there are many more. Beringer farms 1,600 acres in theNapa Valley and 600 acres in Sonoma County. It’s private reserve program, run by veteran Myron Nightingale, is now known worldwide.
www.beringer.com

Chateau St. Jean
Winemaker: Margo Van Staaveren
Chateau St. Jean, with its beauti-fully manicured gardens, elegant architecture and lovely tasting rooms, is the quintessential Sonoma winery. Winemaker Margo Van Staaveren has celebrated more than 30 harvests here, producing an extensive portfolio of Sonoma County wines. The art of blending is the cornerstone of her winemaking philosophy, and Van Staaveren is known as a pioneer of vineyard-designated and limited-production reserve winemaking. Her flagship wine, the now popular Cinq Cepages, premiered with a 1990 vint-age release and has been gaining in renown ever since. For those who would like to try their hand at the craft of winemaking, Van Staaveren hosts a light-hearted Cinq Cepages blending seminar where participants can experience the challenge of blending the prestigious Cabernet Sauvignon using all five Bordeaux varieties ($75, minimum eight guests).
www.chateaustjean.com

Etude
Winemaker: Jon Priest
Tucked away in the far northwest corner of the esteemed Carneros Appellation, the Grace Benoist Ranch, now home to  Etude Estate Vineyards, is a unique piece of land that lies between San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean (the Etude Tasting Room is nearby). Unlike many vineyards that are planted in grids for maximum efficiency, these are configured into dozens of small vine-yards of six to eight acres to ensure low per-vine yields of fully concentrated fruit. They were planted in 2000 with 20 Pinot Noir clones ideally suited to the cool, marine-influenced climate and Jon Priest’s winemaking philosophy of cultivating high-quality wines reflective of the land and varietal expression, with a low need for intervention.
www.etudewines.com

A toast to the winemakers
Here in Napa, regardless of the direction you take, you will find charming wine estates with twisting cellar stairs and vineyards to visit, fabulous culinary adventures to embark upon and plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. But perhaps the most coveted experience on the Valley’s social calendar is the Napa Valley Vintners Auction, an exclusive yet Napa-casual event. The 2013 auction, then in its 33rd year, raised a record $16.9 million for local charities and was even honoured with its own custom shade of nail polish, “Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon” by OPI.

Visit anytime, but be sure to mark your calendars now for next year’s gala fundraiser: June 7, 2014. It’s become a prestigious, sell-out event with celebs and competitive wine lovers jetting in from around the globe to bid on elite lots.

www.auctionnapavalley.com
www.visitnapavalley.com

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Summer splurge

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