Aesthetics, history, and renowned Cabernets draw collectors to southern Calistoga winery.
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. Their 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 farmed these days 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 Dan Petroski, Larkmead’s winemaker. 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.
Larkmead makes a Sauvignon Blanc, Lillie, named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit and a small amount of Tocai Friulano, an Italian white varietal, from old vines. In two Bordeaux-style red blends, Cabernet Franc (LMV Salon) and Merlot (Firebelle) take the lead. The winery’s reputation, though, rests on its Cabernet Sauvignons.
The grapes for the flagship white-label Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon come from a few sections of the estate, which has three separate soil types, each imparting different characteristics to the wine. Three black-label Cabernets, Dr. Olmo, Solari, and The Lark, come from specific blocks, or areas, in which one of the soil types predominates. The minerality of its Cortina gravel soils, for instance, takes center stage in Dr. Olmo, named for a famous viticulturist who worked with Kate’s father on a clonal research project. On the other hand, the Solari, from Pleasanton loam soil, has rich tannins and deep flavors, but with light floral aromatics less detectable in Dr. Olmo. Collectively, these singular wines achieve Petroski’s goal of “showing of just how great this property is.”
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.
Larkmead Vineyards appears in 3 Historic Napa Valley Wineries Day Trip.