Larkmead, Stony Hill, and Louis M. Martini celebrate the past with an eye to the future.
A recent excursion to three historic wineries – Larkmead, Stony Hill, and Louis M. Martini – inspired this northern Napa Valley day trip. Larkmead Vineyards’ story dates back to the 19th century, Stony Hill Vineyard’s to the decade after Prohibition, and Louis M. Martini Winery’s to the one before it. Each winery played a role in creating the Wine Country as we know it today, but with new initiatives all are positioning themselves for the future.
Pre-trip To-do list
1) You’ll need an appointment to visit the first two stops, Larkmead in southern Calistoga and Stony Hill on St. Helena’s Spring Mountain; especially in summer it’s wise to book a day or more ahead. It’s okay to drop in for Louis M. Martini’s Crown Bar Tasting, also in St. Helena, though you’ll need a reservation for the suggested tastings.
2) It’s wise to make a dinner reservation, though except on summer and holiday weekends you’ll likely be able to find a table at one of the north valley’s top restaurants. For lunch you probably won’t need to book a table, but it never hurts.
Lunch won’t be until 1:45 pm (after 2 pm if you choose the wine-and-food option), so fortify yourself with a substantial breakfast at your lodging or head to Calistoga’s Cafe Sarafornia. The café is a locals’ favorite for eggs and other mainstays along with lighter fare. See the Calistoga Restaurants Cheat Sheet for other suggestions, among them Sam’s Social Club.
Two Morning Tastings
Illustrious past, collector-quality Cabernet
Larkmead Vineyards, whose tastings are geared toward collectors of its renowned Cabernets, lists its founding date as 1895. That was the year the second of this property’s three owners in the past century and a half took possession. Even before 1895, though, grapes were planted here by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, the free-spirited daughter of the initial owners, whose estate encompassed 1,000 acres now divided among a few wineries and Bothe–Napa Valley State Park.
Coit, who donated the funds to build San Francisco’s Coit Tower, named Larkmead for the meadowlarks then plentiful in the north valley. From 1895 to 1948, the Salmina family grew grapes and made wine on the estate, whose 150 acres (110 of them planted to vines) are stewarded by Cam Baker and Kate Solari Baker. Kate’s parents, Larry and Polly Solari, purchased Larkmead in 1948.
A visit to Larkmead revolves around aesthetics as well as history. White walls in airy, light-filled spaces provide a soothing backdrop for vintage wine bottles from the Salmina era and photographs and other ephemera that evoke this land’s illustrious past. Kate’s paintings please the eye, as does the colorful landscaping by Kate’s daughter, Anna Baker. Kate’s “Keeping Accounts” series of mixed-media collages incorporates Polly’s business ledgers to great effect.
One stop on tours, a component of most tastings, is a 3-acre research vineyard, overseen by winemaker Dan Petroski, that’s being installed in anticipation of Larkmead’s 125th anniversary in 2020. Petroski, among the forward-looking wine-industry folk concerned about the effects of climate change on Cabernet Sauvignon, the Napa Valley’s premier grape, hopes to experiment with techniques for adapting to higher temperatures. In addition to Cabernet, Petroski is planting former Napa stalwarts like Charbono and Petite Sirah, along with Aglianico, Tempranillo, and other varietals known to thrive in high heat.
Tip: Book a group or private tasting and tour on Larkmead’s website. When the weather’s fine, you can opt for a porch tasting, though this doesn’t include the tour.
Why go: rich history; paintings by winery owner Kate Solari Baker; genteel hospitality; Cabernets made with finesse.
Stony Hill Vineyard
Sommelier-beloved Chardonnay with Napa Valley views
Oaks, Douglas firs, and other trees line the narrow road north of downtown St. Helena that winds west from Highway 29 through parts of two state parks up to Stony Hill Vineyard. Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who purchased this former goat farm on the eastern slope of Spring Mountain during World War II, first planted grapes here in 1948.
Most of the vineyard blocks face north or east. During the summer, shade from the mountain comes early in the afternoon in some spots, making the setting a natural for the cultivation of white grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gerwürztraminer. Some Riesling vines planted in the 1940s, now thick and gnarly, continue to produce grapes for Stony Hill’s refreshing White Riesling.
As good as the White Riesling is, Stony Hill’s mineral-driven, sommelier-beloved Chardonnay sealed the winery’s reputation. Fred McCrea and, from 1977 through 2018, his successor, Mike Chelini, crafted these two whites, plus Gewürztraminer and a Semillon dessert wine, in a small, atmospheric winery equipped with oak barrels dating back to the 1960s. A peek into the old winery, nestled under oaks and redwoods and a space that seems more like a home for a gnome than a wine-production facility, is a highlight of Stony Hill’s easygoing tours.
Overseeing the 2019 vintage and future ones is Stéphane Vivier, brought on board the year after the Napa Valley–based Long Meadow Ranch purchased Stony Hill. The French-born Vivier, who also makes the wines for Long Meadow Ranch’s Anderson Valley estate in Mendocino County, describes himself as a New World winemaker with an Old World sensibility. This dual perspective should serve him well as he initiates infrastructure upgrades to complement the low-tech processes that make Stony Hill wines so unique.
In good weather, a tasting on a stone terrace with views east across the Napa Valley to Howell Mountain follows the tour. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, the sessions move indoors to the ranch-style residence the McCreas built in the 1950s, when the Napa Valley of today was only beginning to coalesce. Tastings often include an older Chardonnay in addition to the current release. Many guests are surprised to learn – and taste – how well Stony Hill’s white wines age.
Tip: Syrah is among the reds made here over the years, with Cabernet Sauvignon a 21st-century addition. The Cabernet is made in a lighter style than many of its Napa peers.
Why go: ageworthy whites; easygoing tour; peek into old winery; Spring Mountain setting.
Lunch or a Winery Food Pairing
A Meal in Downtown St. Helena
Year-round you can have lunch in downtown St. Helena at one of several excellent restaurants, among them Cook St. Helena (rustic Italian) and Goose & Gander (Modern American). Spiffed-up comfort food at Gott’s Roadside is another option, as is (on most days) the Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck.
Optional Winery Food Pairing
Seasonal option for four or more: From Thursday through Sunday between late spring and mid-fall, the splurgeworthy suggestion here is the Outdoor Cabana Tasting at Louis M. Martini Winery. At $150 per person (four-person minimum) the price may seem steep. Keep in mind, though, that this experience includes generous pours of well-regarded Cabernets and other wines.
Louis M. Martini Winery
Bordeaux-style wines in splashy setting
“The Eventual Choice of the American Public” reads the copy in a framed 1930s print ad for Martini Wines. The wording seems awkward until you realize it refers to the nearly decade and a half, then finally ending, that the U.S. banned alcohol sales. Louis M. Martini, who’d started making wine before Prohibition, set about building a winery amid 29 acres he purchased about a mile and a quarter of downtown St. Helena. The land cost Martini a mere $3,000 – these days an acre goes for six figures.
Soaking up the history of this winery whose Italian-born namesake emigrated to San Francisco then returned to Italy to learn winemaking is one of the pleasures of a visit here. Equally appealing are the wines, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignons from the Monte Rosso Vineyard atop Sonoma Mountain and bottlings of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and other Bordeaux varietals.
In 2019, Louis M. Martini Winery unveiled a splashy multimillion-dollar hospitality center designed by the firm of Howard Backen, among the Wine Country’s top architects. You can sip wines standing up at a Crown Bar Tasting, where your view includes a barrel room, but to delve deeper into this legendary brand, book a Heritage Lounge Tasting or a Historic Tour & Tasting. A food pairing is available with the former; the latter takes in the Underground Cellar. The artifacts in the cellar include huge old barrels, vintage wine bottles, and the aforementioned print ad. Whichever tasting you choose, take the time to explore the landscaped grounds.
Tip: Martini winery is open until 6 pm daily, so you won’t feel rushed whether you’re having a cabana tasting or arrive after lunch.
Why go: outdoor tasting spaces; professional hospitality; winery’s place in Napa Valley history.
Have dinner in Rutherford (Rutherford Grill or Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil), St. Helena (three-star Michelin at The Restaurant at Meadowood; prix-fixe at Gatehouse Restaurant, run by Culinary Institute of America students; or Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (farm-to-table cuisine); or Calistoga (Evangeline, Lovina, or Solbar).
For more Calistoga options, see the Calistoga Restaurants Cheat Sheet.