A little research pays off: A visit to Lewelling Vineyards

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

10-Second Summary: Lewelling Vineyards in St. Helena, CA is a small production family vineyard focused on growing grapes -and- two highly rated Cabernet Sauvignons. An appointment is needed, but you'll enjoy a relaxing, personal tour and tasting in a casual setting.

The things I'm looking for in a winery visit aren't easy to find in Napa. I like visiting small wineries where you get to talk with people who give you authentic insight into what the brand is all about. When planning a recent visit to Napa, I recalled this forum thread on the Wine Spectator forums where people shared some of their favorites. Lewelling was mentioned several times, most prominently by Dave Tong. Through the magic of Twitter, I was able to connect with Dave more directly and he re-iterated his recommendation for Lewelling. So I called Lewelling Vineyards up and they were happy to accommodate a tasting and scheduled an appointment straight away.

I had a feeling I was going to like this place when I received directions to their property which included mention of a "bumpty dirt road". We had an afternoon appointment with Haley Wight, Assistant Winemaker and 6th generation member of the Lewelling Family. When I called to see if we could come early- "Sure- no problem!" she said. I think we were the only tasting appointment that afternoon.

We started off our tour with a short walk around the property, and Haley told us about the history of Lewelling. Her family has continuously farmed the property since 1864. Around 1950, Janice Lewelling Wight and her husband Russ built a home on the site and replanted the vineyards. Today, Russ and his 3 sons Alan, Doug and Dave farm 28 acres of almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the site.

Lewelling Vineyards is situated between Highway 29 to the east and beautiful hillside terrain to the west. In addition to the vineyard area, 200 acres of forested hillside is left untouched to provide a habitat for plants and animals as part of their sustainable ranch management and farming practices.

As we were walking around, I couldn't help but think of some of the impersonal, crowded tasting rooms along the nearby main drag. Lewelling is very close to the highway (not far from V. Sattui where we had lunch) but it's off a couple of side streets- far enough that they don't get drop-in visitors. It was a beautiful time of year to visit Napa, just as the buds were breaking on the grape vines in this part of the valley.

After our short walking tour we had a seat on a picnic table behind the house to have a taste of their wines. The majority of their grapes have historically been sold to producers like Caymus, Viader, and Beaulieu, but they do make 2 wines of their own- both Cabernet Sauvignons. They make their wines in a nearby custom crush facility, so they don't have a winemaking operation on site.

The first wine we tasted was the 2006 Lewelling Cabernet Sauvignon. It is almost all Cabernet Sauvignon- 97% with an additional 3% Cabernet Franc. It was aged for 16 months in oak barrels. It was incredibly smooth and luscious (and not very tannic) especially for such a young wine. I was surprised to learn that it contained 15.3% alcohol (I'd consider 14% average)- it wasn't at all "hot". 906 cases were produced.

The 2006 Lewelling Cabnernet Sauvignon Wight Vineyard was the 2nd wine we tried. It was a gem. Really- one of the best Cabs I've ever had. It had everything the previous wine had, but brought it to a higher level with more backbone and mouth filling flavor. It was a more serious wine. Big and bold while still being delicious and well-mannered. Fabulous. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon/5% Cab Franc. It too clocked in at 15.3% alcohol, but was aged longer (for 20 months) in 100% new French oak barrels. 541 cases were produced.

Lewelling hadn't popped up on my radar screen previously because I rely on Wine Spectator ratings more than Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Wine Spectator hasn't rated a Lewelling wine since 1996, however Robert Parker has been rating both of their wines every year lately. Their wines have received 90 points or better from Parker every year since 2002. Their 2004 Lewelling Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Wight Vineyard received 96+ points. Parker loves this stuff, and considers it quite a value to boot.

Coincidentally, I believe I've seen their wines available for sale at a local wine shop recently ('04s and '05s). The Wight at $99 and the regular at $59. The shop I saw them at regularly runs 20% off sales, so $48 and $80 (with no additional tax) would be reasonable rules of thumb for street pricing in the Massachusetts market. If they can ship to your state, and you can get on their mailing list, it would be one to consider because their pricing is quite favorable.

There was no tasting fee, which was amazingly generous given the high quality of their wines and the time we spent there. Unfortunately, no wines were available to purchase. They're already sold out of the 2006s we tasted, and their 2007s will be offered as futures to those on their mailing list in the fall of 2009. Overall, I would put Lewelling in my top 3 winery visits of all time. I'd recommend them to anyone looking to visit a premium producer of Napa Cab with a personal touch.

Check 'em out:
Lewelling Vineyards
1951 Olive Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574

Further Reading:

Question of the Day: Have you visited Lewelling or tried their wines?


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