As the road climbs into the mountains surrounding the Napa Valley, the tree canopy closes in overhead and the Wine Trail chatter falls away. Traffic gets thinner; the expanses of lush green get thicker. Up here, at wineries that are still family owned and operated, their histories either passed down or retold by the people who lived them. This is the Napa that few tourists will ever bother to experience—which is fine by me. I dedicated a recent visit to seeking out those hidden gems, some at the end of the road, some where there barely is a road. If you’re up for an adventure, I suggest you grab your GPS device, rev up your favorite four-wheel-drive steed and get ready for a very different taste of Napa.
Nichelini Family Winery
Eight miles off the Silverado Trail in the foothills between St. Helena and the Chiles Valley, charming Nichelini is still very much a family affair. A direct descendant of founder Anton Nichelini (and there are many!) will almost certainly be on hand giving tours and tastings, either in the parlor of the historic seven-bedroom house Anton built in 1895, or behind it in the shade next to the barrel storage cellar. (Listen for today’s operators to refer to themselves and each other as “N5” and “N6,” indicating their generation!)
Enjoy occasional live accordion music while you sip bright merlots and old-vines muscadelle by winemaker Aimée Sunseri (N5). Nearby, Anton’s original 12-foot-by-14-foot homestead cabin from 1884 is being restored next to the cliffside property he built five years later for his growing family—he eventually had eight daughters and four sons, all of whom lived to adulthood. A Swiss immigrant who grew up close to the Italian border, Anton kept the family winery alive through Prohibition and the Great Depression by selling grapes and bootleg wine. If you go in fall, celebrate Nichelini’s 125th consecutive harvest at the Festa della Vendemmia in early October. Open by appointment Mon-Thu; open to the public Fri-Sun, tastings $15-$20, 2950 Sage Canyon Rd., 707-963-0717, NicheliniWinery.com.
Fontanella Family Winery
Over on Mount Veeder, there’s a family affair of a different sort. Jeff and Karen Fontanella have lived with their two young sons on this 26-acre vineyard and winery since 2005. Theirs is the very definition of a destination wine-tasting experience, as Fontanella is the only winery on this dead-end road. Tastings are by reservation only, and are usually conducted on the sunny patio or in the tasting room under Karen’s watchful eye. Jeff was on his way to a medical career when he discovered enology, and Karen would become a lawyer, two things that would help make Fontanella the sleek operation it is today. The couple’s custom crush business supported the early days; wine made from carefully sourced fruit keeps an ever-growing wine club in crisp, sunny chardonnays, lush cabernet sauvignons and juicy zinfandels—95 percent of it sells exclusively at the winery or through the club.
This year’s harvest will be particularly momentous as the Fontanellas will pick their first estate cab, to be released in 2018. The best part of a visit here—aside from the sweeping vineyard views from the patio, two happy winery dogs Payton and Riley, and the warm hospitality—is the barrel tasting, where you can sample unfinished wine from two of the three single-vineyard components (ash, shale and gravel) that make up Fontanella’s Mt. Veeder cab ($58). If you’re so inspired, pick up a blending kit and try your hand at blending your own cuvée! Tastings daily by reservation only, $30, 1721 Partrick Rd., 707-252-1017, FontanellaWinery.com.
Cellphones will do little good in the foothills below Howell Mountain and overlooking the Conn Valley, so print the map from Buehler’s website just in case. It’s way out here that in 1972, John Buehler Sr. bought the land that has become his family’s legacy. Now in the hands of John Jr. and his children, Buehler produces some 50,000 cases per year, making it the largest of the three (Nichelini produces just under 2,000 cases, Fontanella about 4,000). By the time you reach the gates, your cell service will have long since dropped, so use the crumbling ruins of the Franco-Swiss winery as a landmark, and celebrate when you see the stone and wood structure of the former Salmina winery.
Proceed carefully along the narrow ribbon of road that weaves through the vineyards, past the pond and to the winery proper. Tastings are by reservation only, and as there are just two (complimentary!) appointments per day, you should have the place almost entirely to yourself as you sample two chardonnays and Buehler’s Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, as well as the Napa zinfandel ($20) that just earned Buehler a nod from Wine Spectator. If you’re fortunate enough to spend even 10 minutes with wry, witty John himself, drink it in. And try not to get whatever is the reverse of sticker shock when you realize that even the most expensive 750-milliliter bottle on his list—the Papa’s Knoll cab, from a beautiful dry-farmed block of wild and girthsome hillside vines—is just $45. To quote Crosby, Stills & Nash: “You understand now why you came this way.” Open Mon-Fri, 820 Greenfield Rd., 707-963-2155, BuehlerVineyards.com.