Green, red, rust — check out the colorful Chiles Valley

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A wonderfully different, and relaxed, wine tasting experience can be found just off Highway 128, and only about 40 minutes from Winters. It’s Capell Valley, located in the Chiles Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area), a sub-appellation of the larger Napa Valley AVA, home to some of the world’s best wine.

Just take a right turn on Lower Chiles Valley Road, located near where Sage Creek crosses under Highway 128 (also known as Sage Canyon Road in this area of St. Helena) and let the wine adventures begin.

The first stop on a recent excursion was RustRidge Winery, which has much more to offer than a lovely, western-styled tasting room overlooking rolling vineyards, where you can sample their lovely wines: horses. Thoroughbred horses, in fact, born and bred for the racetrack, and their story intertwines with how RustRidge Winery came to be.

As she pours a tasting flight, which begin with a rich and yummy Sauvignon Blanc (this is the one you must take home, and open for a sunny afternoon on the patio), winemaker and co-owner Susan Meyer tells how her family’s love of horseracing (which was the original reason the 588-acre property  — a horse and Angus cattle ranch — was purchased in 1972) eventually came to include not only a 55-acre vineyard, and then a bed and breakfast inn right there on the property (and isn’t that handy because once you get to know the Chiles Valley area, you may want to stay longer than just an afternoon). The winery itself opened its doors in 1984, and Susan’s mother so loved the blend of wine and horseracing, that she purchased a stallion named Napa Valley to start her breeding operation.

“As soon as she heard that name, she had to have him,” says Susan.

Susan explains that she didn’t set out to become a winery owner or a winemaker. Following her graduation from UC Davis, where she majored in economics, Susan explored the high-end food industry of San Francisco, wrote a cookbook and then realized she didn’t like the trajectory of this career choice.

“I wasn’t going to get very far — I’d be in a hot kitchen for eight hours a day.”

And so, she switched career tracks and enrolled in law school. Meanwhile, her brother was running the family farm, and decided he was done with it. Susan didn’t want to see the property sold.

“I love this place, and I’ve always loved horses,” she said. “I was a city girl. I couldn’t have imagined taking over this ranch, but I didn’t want to lose this place.”

Another person who just so happened to love horses was her husband, Jim Fresquez, who left his job as assistant director of photography for Hanna Barbera to follow his passion. He began training Thoroughbred racehorses, which is where he met Susan’s mother, and began training hers.

Susan and Jim eventually met one day while she was on break from law school and visiting the ranch, and Jim came up to see some of her mother’s horses. They started dating and became “a thing,” she says and ended up getting married. With Susan’s brother no longer interested in running the ranch, she and Jim set out to buy all her family members out of the ranch, an endeavor that took 17 years.

Taking over the ranch means that someone had to become the winemaker, and Susan stepped up to the challenge 27 years ago. She got some guidance from a winemaker in American Canyon, and then hired a consultant.

“She was really pricey, so I learned how to do everything pretty quickly.”

The RustRidge Winery labels feature horses, and original artwork by Jim Fresquez. (Photo by Debra DeAngelo)

And learn she did, as evidenced by her bright, flavorful white varietals and her hearty, robust reds. Her completely estate-grown varietals include the RustRidge label — Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon; the Racehorse label, featuring a Racehorse White (Chardonnay) and a Racehorse Red (a Zinfandel/Cabernet blend), and their Animated label, a nod to Jim’s past with the cartoon industry, and featuring some of his original artwork from Hanna Barbera on the label, and available in red and white blends.

Susan notes that she and Jim took on a partner in their winery, Kent Rosenblum, the founder of Rosenblum Winery and current owner of Rockwall Winery, and adds that he’s well known for his Zinfandel.

With everything coming together for RustRidge Winery, Susan notes that the Napa Valley fire really put a dent in the Chiles Valley wine business, even though the fire never touched that area, so she is more than ready to welcome customers, old and new.

She adds that visitors are welcome to bring carrots to feed the horses, who she says are the “most spoiled horses in the world.” Besides the horses, there is also a cuddly tasting room kitty named Zin and three big, smiling Golden Labrador Retrievers to visit with — Rusty, Lucy and Holly.

Besides great wine and everything an animal lover could desire, RustRidge Winery offers a panoramic view of open land that changes with the seasons, and it is autumn that inspired the ranch’s name. Susan says the eastern hills of the valley turn the color of rust in the fall — an especially beautiful time to visit, “particularly in the evening, when that orangey color permeates everything.”

But even more important than the “what” is the “how” of this special place.

“We do everything from the ground up,” says Susan. “We grow the grapes, we do the farming, we make the wine right here. And it’s the same thing with the horses — we breed them and we birth them, and that’s pretty rare.”

Find out more about setting out for a rare, ground up experience by visiting www.rustridge.com or calling (707) 965-9353. RustRidge Ranch, Winery and B&B Inn are located at 2910 Lower Chiles Valley Road, St. Helena, CA  94574. Tasting is available by appointment. Find out more at https://www.rustridge.com.

 

Green & Red Vineyard

Green & Red Vineyard winemaker and co-owner Jay Hemingway (right) and associate winemaker Mike Penn are the talent behind some truly tasty Zinfandel — their specialty. (Photo by Debra DeAngelo)

While horses may make some wine lovers squeal, for others, it’s history that really captivates them. For fantastic wine and amazing stories of local history, look no further than Green & Red Vineyard. Actually, you must look really carefully to find it because it’s a bit off the beaten path. Unless you know where to turn, you may not find it at all because cell phone coverage is spotty and sometimes non-existent in Chiles Valley, so be sure to print out a map before setting out. This winery is worth the smidge of extra hassle, because the wine is just that good, and the history just that impressive: this winery is the homestead of Colonel Chiles.

Yes, THE Colonel Chiles, one of the first to arrive in California by wagon train in the 1800s, and after whom the Chiles Valley (which originally extended down Putah Creek and all the way into Davis, where a major road bears his name). Jay Heminway, who purchased the land in 1970 with his wife, Pam, explains that Col. Chiles originally used the property as a grist mill, supplying grist to the San Francisco area, and also had a whiskey distillery there. Heminway says Chiles’ own adobe home — Rancho El Adobe — is still standing on the property.

Even before Chiles purchased the property, this area had its own Native American history, and was called “Catacula.”

The Heminways purchased the property in 1970 and started planting grapes in 1972. There are several vineyards on the 200-acre property, called the Chiles Mill Vineyard, the Catecula Vinyard and the Tip Top Vineyard. The vineyards go up in elevation from 1,000 feet (Chiles Mill) to 1,400 feet (Tip Top), totaling 31 acres. Ninety percent of the vineyard is planted with Zinfandel, and the remaining acreage split evenly between Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Petit Sirah. Obviously, Zinfandel is their banner varietal.

Their Tip Top Zinfandel, by the way, truly is tip top. You will definitely want to take a bottle of this home (only one??). Of all the wines, and every one scrumptious, the Tip Top Zinfandel is truly memorable. Rich like a Zin, but smooth as can be, almost as smooth as a Merlot but entirely more interesting and complex. I thought I detected chocolate in the nose, and assistant winemaker Mike Penn, a UC Davis graduate with a degree in viticulture who wrote his master’s thesis on Zinfandel, deftly replied that while he would never disagree with what a taster may detect in the nose, he would more likely describe their Zinfandel as having “lots of pure expression of raspberry” and sometimes bay leaf and herbal notes. (Whatever you want to call those notes, I give this wine five “yums”!)

This “ribbon chert” rock is what makes the soil at Green & Red Vineyard so unique. It is the only winery in the Napa AVA with this soil, which is rich in oceanic sediment and marine fossils, millions of years old. This Zinfandel owes its flavor to this ribbon chert. (Photo by Debra DeAngelo)

Penn explains that the deep, rich flavor of their Zin is a result of the soil there, and it is from this soil that the winery gets its name. The green is for the green-tinged serpentine in the soil, and the red is for iron-rich red “chert,” which is abundant on the property. Penn said he believes that Green & Red Winery may be the only winery in all of the Napa Valley AVAs to have red chert soil.

“The soils are very unique,” he says, explaining that they originated from oceanic sediments, including marine fossils, settling in this area millions of years ago.

Rare soil, a rare Zinfandel tasting experience, and rare to find. Heminway, who was a fine arts major at UC Berkeley and a sculptor before working in the wine industry in France and New York before moving to St. Helena and purchasing the property, says that you won’t find Green & Red wine at BevMo or Safeway. It can be purchased online or from wine brokers, where it can be found in small wine shops in northern and southern California. Other than that, you must make an appointment to taste it and purchase it.

While Green & Red wines may be unfamiliar to wine shoppers, but they’re well known to wine aficionados. The winery was featured in both Wine & Spirits and Wine Spectator magazines, and was included amongst the “Top 100 Wineries” of 2015, 2016 and 2017 by Wine & Spirits.

Besides a gift for winemaking, Heminway has extensive knowledge of the Col. Chiles and Chiles family history, which makes for interesting conversation while sampling (like he said) tip top wine, particularly for anyone who now lives on what was once Col. Chiles expansive property. A visit includes a tour (weather permitting) of the winery and vineyards, nestled in the heavenly hilltops dotted with oak trees.

For more information about Green & Red Vineyard, visit greenandred.com. Be aware that drop-in visits are not allowed, and can be made by appointment only. To make an appointment, call first: (707) 965-2346. Find out more at http://www.greenandred.com.

 

(Note: Both RustRidge Winery and Green & Red Vineyard will be pouring their wine at the Winters Wine & Food Gala, planned for Saturday, May 19, on the Mertz Ranch in Winters. Tickets are $50 per person and are available at First Northern Bank and Pacific Ace Hardware.)

 

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