Before our honeymoon to Napa, 10 AM really didn’t mean all that much to me. The hour would click by unnoticed as I plugged along at work setting tile, hanging siding, or carrying out any other number of solid mid-morning tasks in need of completion. It certainly wasn’t a favorite out of the twelve. But now, almost 3 months after our trip, I often catch myself daydreaming away about a rainy morning in November spent visiting Tres Sabores, a small, family-owned winery located on the western side of the Napa Valley.
After spending three days in high-profile tasting rooms all up and down the Silverado Trail and Route 29, a more intimate vineyard visit fell on our radar. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with big vineyards, and I’m certainly not above them. Wine is, first and foremost, a business—definitely a labor of love— but a money-making operation none the less. In fact, big vineyards give us distribution, accessibility, and great wines. But at this point in our trip, the novelty of a noisy tasting room and vying for the pourer’s attention had worn thin. I had no interest in seeing any more drive-by “connoisseurs” with their purple mouths, wine glasses around their necks in string and leather holsters, swarming the valley vineyards like a cloud of locusts. It was rainy and Carey was getting end-of-trip depression. We wanted to get back to the basics and leave all that behind.
We splashed down a muddy road, sadly trying to ignore the fact that the soft top on our midnight blue rental Benz (my big honeymoon surprise to my beautiful new wife) was securely up. After a few wrong turns driving navigation-blind on some unmapped roads, we pulled up to Tres Sabores. A little wooden sign, halfway down a narrow road through some vines, welcomed us to this little (wet) slice of paradise.
It consisted of a small cottage and attached barn, an outdoor area with clusters of wine-making equipment and barrels covered by a tarp roof sagging under the weight of the rainfall, and a cellaring area carved out of the hillside and home to both the fermenting tanks and barrels of the aging wines.
Carey lingered under a tree with her hands in her jean pockets and waited for me to lock the car. We were the only people in sight.
It felt like we were trespassing on private property: no parking lot, none of the limousines, no pavement… in fact, no people at all. We ducked out of the rain into the cover of the quaint, vine-covered cottage where we met Jon Engelskirger, consulting winemaker and husband to Tres Sabores owner and winemaker, Julie Johnson.
Unlike the expansive tasting rooms of exotic woods and stone of the multitudes of vineyards in the area, the Tres Sabores tasting room was actually, well, an open one-bedroom ranch. A room with a queen-sized bed, small breakfast table, kitchenette, and amazing views of vineyards embraced us, and unknowingly gave us a crash course on what vineyard life is all about.
After a warm introduction, Jon began to enthusiastically tell us the story of how a successful family-owned vineyard and the wines they produce came to be. He spoke of terroir, the significance of the vineyard’s geographical location situated in an alluvial fan at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains, and the region’s famed “Rutherford Dust.” He demonstrated the importance of plant diversification, wildlife balance, organic farming, and a strong commitment to encouraging a better understanding of the role of nature as a whole in the production of wine. We had so far enjoyed every minute of our visit, and we had yet to start tasting wines.
The first selection was a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from the Farina Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. Jon served us the Sauv Blanc in some new Reidel crystal he pulled from a box in the back. “I hope you like this room temperature,” he remarked. I said I couldn’t think of a better way to wash down my toothpaste.
The wine was wonderful.
The next wine to follow was the 2005 Zinfandel, and from what I remember, it was a full-bodied, spicy wine exhibiting lush berries and fairly robust percentage of alcohol. The 2006 ¿Porqué No?, a Zinfandel blend, was the third, and one I was very excited to try. Jon told us the story of this wine’s background, coming about by blending some remaining Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon left over from the original two estate wines. The name ¿Porqué No? means “why not?” in Spanish and fully represents the winemakers mindset. With the addition of Petit Verdot and Petit Syrah, this wine had a nice balance of fruit, earth, spice, and acidity that came together in an equal harmony, with no dominant or controlling player.
The rain kept coming down outside, the humidity seeping into the room and reminding me vaguely of the feeling of camping. Without sunlight beating down on the vines, the view out of the window was glowing and emerald. It was one of the most peaceful settings I’ve ever been in. Carey absentmindedly picked up a ceramic plate, to which Jon noted the design painted on it—the wine’s emblem. His wife had seen it on a plate (in what country, I regret I cannot remember) and had fallen in love with it. She had an artist recreate it for their label. Turns out labels were a bit of a passion for her, and they were all artistic and captivating.
We ended the tasting with the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon. I was so excited for a taste. Rutherford Cabernets are renowned. No surprise here, it was great: deep and dark, loaded with black fruit and mocha, the tannins were present, but approachable and didn’t pucker the mouth. The finish was long-lived and the wine was silky at all points. I truly savored this final selection and was even able to enjoy a bit more as Jon showed us around the facilities.
Carey got distracted by a gigantic picture book about vineyard dogs, and she giggled in delight as Jon directed her to the page featuring Tres Sabores’ own vineyard dogs— her favorite breed: Golden Retrievers.
I covered the top of my wine glass with my hand as we went out into the rain, scooting across a gravel area marked with covered barrels and entering the cellar. It was naturally cool and we stood sheltered from the rain for a bit, sipping our wine and chatting. Jon showed us some giant crates where newly harvested grapes fermented. He lifted the coverings and we stuck our noses down into the dank, purple darkness. The fermentation bubbles tingled in my nostrils.
After a trip into the adjoining room to see more wine in progress, we came back into the kitchen and set our glasses down. Jon sat on the edge of the bed and we sat at the table as he told us the remarkable story of Tres Sabores’ Fire Roasted Zinfandel Marinade and Grilling Glaze. There is almost 3/4’s of a bottle of Zinfandel in each bottle of the sauce, and there’s a reason why it has a smoky flavor: the winemaker, Julie, had thousands of bottles stored in a warehouse that was a victim of arson for insurance fraud. Winemakers who had stored bottles there collectively lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Julie didn’t take this lying down. She put on a hazmat suit and waded into the singed wreckage to salvage her wine. It was ruined, but she ended up putting it to good use mingling it into a flavorful barbeque sauce.
As we drove away from the winery, we found our whole perspective on Napa Valley had changed. I could spend weeks in that one-room house, staring out at the vines.
It was close to 11 AM when we left but it felt like we’d had a full day’s worth of pleasure. Carey suggested a nap from the passenger’s seat, and issued a small hiccup.
Only in Napa Valley.