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Carneros Wines: A Napa Secret

Located between Napa and Sonoma, a hidden appellation is full of tasteful vineyards, modern art, and rural splendor.

  • Casey Larey, patron at Fremont Diner, Carneros region, Calif., image
    Photo caption
    At Fremont Diner, patron Casey Larey faces a welcome challenge—the fried chicken sandwich.
  • Gordon Huether's Cactus Garden sculpture, di Rosa, Carneros region, Calif., image
    Photo caption
    Gordon Huether's Cactus Garden graces the sculpture meadow at di Rosa.
  • Reynaldo Robledo Sr., owner of Robledo Family Winery, Carneros region, Calif., image
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    Reynaldo Robledo Sr. welcomes wine lovers to Robledo Family Winery, one of the first in the Carneros region.
  • Vineyard at Artesa, Carneros region, Calif., image
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    Artesa Vineyards & Winery offers stunning views of its vines and the Carneros countryside.
  • Women clinking wine glasses at Cuvaison, Carneros region, Calif., image
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    Tastes come with grand vineyard views at Cuvaison Estate Wines.

Decades ago, when Reynaldo Robledo Sr. scraped together enough cash to buy a patch of southern Napa County, the bayside hills were pasture, part of an early California rancho named Rincón de los Carneros (Haven of the Rams). “Nobody thought the land was worth that much,” recalls Robledo, who at age 16 moved here from the city of Zamora in Michoacán, Mexico. He planted his 13 acres with pinot noir vines.

Today the area has 8,000 acres of vineyards, and Robledo Family Winery, with 350 of those, regularly wows tasters with its sumptuous Los Carneros pinots and other bottlings. The official viticultural area, or appellation, centered on Highway 121 near the city of Sonoma, has since 1983 claimed slices of both Napa and Sonoma counties, yet many wine country travelers roar right past it. And that’s their loss. Along 20 miles of vine-draped roads are wineries—roughly 25 in all—where you can taste at least a dozen varieties while enjoying grand architecture, fine art, rustic barns, or all three.

“We used to call the Carneros the Appalachia of appellations because it’s so rural,” says Steven Rogstad, winemaker at Cuvaison, whose tasting room is a new glass-and-steel box set among vineyards that climb toward hills capped with oaks. “We’re right on San Pablo Bay, so we get morning fog and afternoon breezes. It’s perfect for such early-ripening varieties as chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah.”

An ideal Carneros outing might actually begin nearby, in the region’s heart, at di Rosa, where spacious art galleries and opulent gardens display works from a 2,000-piece collection of modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and photography. Assembled by the late Rene di Rosa—an irreverent grape grower with a soft spot for emerging artists—the preserve includes pieces by Robert Arneson, Joan Brown, Deborah Butterfield, Roy De Forest, Mark di Suvero, and William T. Wiley, all now recognized masters.

On a knoll across the road stands what looks to be a French château—the luxurious tasting room of Domaine Carneros. Here, nose-tickling sips of the winery’s signature bubbly, Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, are served in slim flutes alongside bites such as cured salmon and goat cheese. A five-minute detour up a nearby hillside brings you to Artesa, a futuristic concrete lair furnished with fountains, sculptures, and art glass. A generous menu of wines includes the Spanish varieties albariño and tempranillo; step out onto a deck for a view that takes in Mounts Diablo and Tamalpais and the San Francisco skyline.

You could choose to end your day at elegant Artesa, but you would miss the region’s smaller wineries, some announced only by hand-lettered signs. Dave Homewood started making wine in his garage in 1983; today, his folksy Homewood Winery offers a pleasing chardonnay among a dozen other wines. At Adastra, a 20-acre family winery where tastes are poured in a redwood barn, you can sample cherry-scented pinot noirs, then whack croquet balls through wire hoops on a lawn above the vines.

It’s just an 18-minute drive from Adastra in the area’s eastern reaches to the west side’s Larson Family Winery, where cheerful Labrador retrievers—mascots of a citrusy chardonnay dubbed Three Lab Chard—bound over to greet arriving guests. After tasting, you’re welcome to stroll an old road into a wildlife area visited by ospreys and egrets. Back in the car, it’s a quick hop to Cline Cellars, home of a museum housing replicas of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Nearby you’ll find the renowned Gloria Ferrer, maker of the aged sparkler Carneros Cuvée, and the by-appointment-only Robledo Family Winery.

Everardo Robledo, one of Reynaldo’s sons, swirls a glass of a peppery red blend called Los Braceros and reflects on his own transition as the area grew into a wine destination. “My brothers and I had to work the vineyards,” he says. “We did everything—planting, pruning, harvesting. We weren’t always so happy about it then, but now we realize how lucky we were.”

Photography by David H. Collier

This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.