An Afternoon on Pritchard Hill

One of the great things about living up here is the people we meet when we are out exploring the valley. And the more people we meet, the more we hear about interesting events. And the more events we attend, the more people we meet! It’s a never-ending circle, and it’s this circle that caused us to end up spending an amazing “Afternoon on Pritchard Hill” last Saturday.

Our friends at Chappellet (loyal readers will remember my postings about this wonderful winery) informed us about a first-ever event that involved five of the wineries up on Pritchard Hill, high above the valley floor in St. Helena. The five wineries (Chappellet, David Arthur, Ovid, Montagne and Continuum) pooled their member lists and invited them to this exclusive ($150 p.p.) luncheon and tasting, which lasted from 11am-4:30pm. It was a creative way for the wineries to expose their bottlings to other well-heeled consumers who already appreciated the wines that come from this unique growing region. A couple of the wineries on the hill (like Colgin and Bryant Family), who have no trouble selling their wines, chose not to participate, or took an “I’ll wait and see how successful this is” approach, and they may regret not having participated. The event was a rip-roaring success.

We assembled at the parking lot for the Lake Hennessey dam at 11am where four wine country coaches were waiting to shuttle the 90 or so guests up the hill. The entrance to Pritchard Hill is about 3 miles up highway 128 east of the Silverado Trail. Once you get to the right address, you turn up one of the driveways and proceed two more miles up steep, twisting roads until you are on a plateau overlooking the Napa Valley. This area (and all of Pritchard Hill only has about 300 acres of vineyards, along with many oak trees, deer, snakes and who knows how many other types of wildlife) varies from about 900 to 12oo feet in elevation, high enough that it is often above the fog that usually shrouds the valley on summer mornings. This microclimate creates a tremendous terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon, and those wines were to be the star attractions at the afternoon on the hill.

After boarding the coaches we were joined by a spokesperson from one of the wineries who told us of the day’s agenda while we rode up the hill. Soon we disembarked at the winery of David Arthur, where we were greeted by a glorious view, all of the winery owners and winemakers, and a glass of Cabernet Rose. (The rose was delicious, and for the life of me I can’t tell you whose wine it was. None of the wineries we visited market a rose wine, so it was someone’s experiment, and if I had to guess, I’d guess it was from Tim Mondavi’s Continuum Estate.)

 Then we mingled with the other guests and talked to the owners and winemakers, who were all eager to chat and share backgrounds. A guitarist played somewine-sipping music as we talked. We had a lovely discussion with Carissa Mondavi, who helped us understand the various factions of the Mondavi family and their respective histories. Continuum is one of the newer vineyards at the top of Pritchard Hill, and while they have made wine there for a couple of years, there is no winemaking operation or building there as yet. However, after lunch we would attend a ground-breaking ceremony at their site just over the crest of the hill.

Eventually we were asked to be seated, and we took two seats at a table in the shade of a magnificent oak tree. We met the other guests at the table, and were pleasantly surprised to have Jon-Mark Chappellet and his wife Colleen join us as our “hosts.” We met Jon-Mark back at the Farmstead wine dinner in June, but this was the first time meeting Colleen, who is as sweet and charming as anyone could be.

There were introductions from the five hosts and hostesses, while we enjoyed a crisp Chenin Blanc produced in very limited quantities by the Chappellet family. (I have a new quest!) My mother used to drink Chenin Blanc, and it was far too sweet for my tastes today. This, however, was light, crisp and dry and was perfect for a summer afternoon.

Soon the platters of food started coming out, which we passed family-style around the table. (It was excellent, by the way, and I regret I did not snap photos of it.) At the same time, servers walked out of the vineyards carrying decanters of red wine, which they poured at each table. Over the next 90 minutes, they poured five different decanters of wine, each representing the still-in-barrel signature Cabernets of  our five winery hosts. As each wine was served, the owner got up to talk about his or her wine, and tell a little bit about the wine-making philosophy, the history of the family and property, and the terrain. Pritchard Hill is marked by an incredibly rocky soil, which creates complications when creating the vineyards. Much expensive excavation must be done to prepare the ground. All of the vintners commented on this, and talked about how the rocky soil causes the vines to “struggle,” which in turn yields better fruit. All I can tell you is, all five of the 2010 barrel tastings were outstanding. The Chappellet is quite drinkable already, even though it is two years from being marketable. The other four wines, while needing more time to even out, all are full-bodied, have great tannic structure, are “big” wines, and have wonderful color. I can’t wait for these wines to come out in a couple of years. If it is possible to make a mental note while drinking wine all afternoon, I made one.

As I mentioned, each of the owners got to talk about his wine, and it was fun to get to learn a little about everyone. I especially enjoyed hearing from Tim Mondavi (who has a well-earned reputation for long presentations!) and David Long, whose parents started David Arthur Vineyards. David explained that we were all sitting beneath the oak tree that his parents used to sit under when David was a child. We were in a special place, and we all felt privileged to be here.

After lunch we got back in the buses and headed up and over and around the hill to Continuum. We were served lemonade in mason jars, handed cute little parasols, and walked out onto the rocky terrain to a bulldozer. Tim and Marcie Mondavi climbed up on the rig and talked to us about where we were standing, the significance of the location (and the winery’s name), and told us what was about to be built. Then they hopped down, did a ceremonial ground-breaking with giant corkscrew, and then we adjourned up to the lawn area of the house that is on the property where we enjoyed even more wine and food.

Here, each of the wineries served their 2008 (or 2007 in the case of Montagne) Cabernets, which is what they are selling now. There was also a vast selection of cured meats and cheeses from The Fatted Calf charcuterie in Napa to nibble on as we imbibed. The guitarist continued to play while we sat at tables under umbrellas and enjoyed the stunning views of the Napa Valley beneath us. More wine? Sure. It’s delicious.

A separate table was set aside for those wishing to order some of the wines, but the sales pitch was so low-key it was almost unnoticeable. Of course, we bought some, most of which needs to sit for another couple of years.

Finally, about 4:15, the coaches started taking us back down the hill as we were ready. It had been a sensational day, with many new friends to stay in touch with, and many new wines to catalog. We are already looking forward to next year.

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