What is a Boutique Winery?

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In writing articles, blogs and listening to wineries profess to be a “boutique” facility, the definition is a bit elusive.  There is a connotation that a small winery produces the best wines. This is hardly true as we have all experience a small winery who may produce wines which are essentially marginal or undrinkable. I have given this some thought for several years and here is my stab at this “poltergeist topic”. I believe that the phrase “boutique winery” is now “non-meaningful” similar to a wine label stating “reserve”.

Winemakers, viticulturists, writers and the like all have a different spin on what makes a winery boutique. Similarly, all have a different idea on who and what constitutes a mass producer of wines. And can a large winery make a good wine?  I would like to revert back to some basic principles for winemaking. The goal of most owners and winemakers is produce the best wine, from the best vineyards, with the best techniques of farming, with the best barrels for the varietal, aged an appropriate time in barrels and bottles before being released. Simple, right?

This is where the confusion comes in. Let’s examine each particular nuance to see where the confusion comes.

  • The Best Vineyards – location, location and location is not just for real estate housing market, it is also the mantra of wine owners. Sloped hillsides, volcanic soil, loam topsoil, rocky, etc. Each provides a certain terroir for each varietal for uniqueness and taste consideration.
  • The Best Techniques of Farming – Using the best skills of a highly trained viticulturist from vineyard layout be it north to south or east to west. Other considerations including trellising, organic, self-sustainable, dry farmed, etc.
  • The Best Barrels for Ageing – Does one use French, Hungarian, American oak, what percentage is new vs old, which mfg of oak barrels to use, etc?  Or if doing a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, is it oak, stainless steel or cement egg? Again the stated goal is to produce, for the varietal, the best finished end product.
  • The Best Amount of Time in Barrels – How much time consideration is required for the wines to combine, “mate with the oak” for integration, achieve the elusive balance of acid and tame the tannins. For example for Cabernet Sauvignon, some winemakers go with 12-14 months in the barrel, while others go to 36 months and beyond.
  • The Best Blending Required or Block blending, etc. — This may require to add various percentages, which a change year to year, of wine varietals in making a perfect Bordeaux. Then again for a Cabernet, they may blend all from an estate grapes from Block 1, Block 6 and Block 9 with varying percentages to form the “best in class” wine.
  • The Best Amount of Time in Bottles – Again depending on varietal how much time is required to have the wine “settle down” from the trauma of wine production to release date?

I have touched only briefly from a layman’s positon as to the requirements to make the best wine possible. Just from this brief outline, many factors come into play. There is simply not a “Betty Crocker wine book” recipe. Mother Nature produces an unique grape each and every year.

So while these may be the basic pillars of great winemaking, they can be compromised further. Yes, when a winemaker or owner decides on a prescribed ROI (return on investment) or profit for the business, short cuts can be worked around these painstaking details. Short cuts, just as in general business can be done but with desired and undesired consequences.

Hopefully this background is helpful and needed to arrive at the answer of what is a boutique winery? Let’s obfuscate this even a bit further. In the past a winery was either a mass production house doing 100,000’s or even a one million cases a year in total production or small production house. Using a designation number is too simplistic, should it be 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000 or even 1,000? Where is the cutoff point? Add to this a large production winery, say 500,000 cases but they make a Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon Blanc with only 150 cases. Are they to be called a mass producer or a boutique winery? A mass production house with a boutique varietal?

So I would suggest that the word “boutique winery” is an antiquated word and its meaning diminished beyond repair. When people use “boutique” they were trying to describe a winery who is a small, quality centric and that makes a lifestyle wine. Today, the meaning is simply wrapped up in the word QUALITY, regardless of size. Steven Mirassou uses the word “authenticity” for this concept of Quality. His description is as follows “The authentic winery is one that allows for the vagaries of Mother Nature and the idiosyncrasies of the harvest to come through in the wine. The winery doesn’t try to twist the wine up by adding or taking away in order to create a wine that is just palatable, forsaking the wine’s soul for the easy pleasure of richness or color or tannin. The authentic winery operates strictly by its philosophy, which in the best cases comes through clearly in the wine. Minimal intervention, balance between wood, fruit, acid, and tannin, emphasis on varietal character all are marks of authenticity. Authentic wines are not always the easiest to enjoy because they should cause the wine drinker to think about what he or she is drinking…authentic wines are thoughtful and thought provoking. Authentic wine should not be flawed, but a flaw is often a cultural touchstone; authentic wines are rare and are not necessarily a product of the winery’s size. They are certainly a product, however, of the winemaker’s love for the grape and for the craft.” So be it Quality or Authenticity, we need to corral the meaning.

My conclusion is fairly simple to understand. A Quality, an Artisan or Authentic wine or winery minimally consists of the following:

  • They produce a specific wine in a relatively small quantity, high quality and with a personal touch, independent of their overall production size.
  • They are handcrafted, artisan winemakers who strive for the highest quality. There is not a “premeditated formula” but rather an existential (moment by moment) development of what is presented to them by the harvest that day from the land.
  • They typically do or can do, everything themselves (or have the ability to do it all)—vineyard to blending to bottling.
  • They are extremely selective in vineyard management – prune excessively and select block by block or row by row to be harvested – they are themselves micro managers, but to the consumers benefit.
  • They fully extract the varietal in which their vineyard/soil is best suited. They will not produce a varietal for experimentation, club consumption or to push a sub-standard grape/harvest to turn a profit.
  • It is a way of life, not a tonnage by acre or ROI—simply a lifestyle is more in keeping with their vision of winemaking – that is their motivation and desire at the core.
  • Quality is their mantra at any expense from root stock to fruit to harvest to aging.

When adhering to the above, they can surely be called a “Quality Winery”, “Artisan” or “Authentic”, they produce a quality wine. If they following the above simple tenants, most will produce an exquisite and desirable wine for all to consume. 

I would like to hear your thoughts and/or comments on the subject.


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Crocker & Starr

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Crocker & Starr

Pam Starr is simply a Rock Star. I believe she is in the elite top 10 winemakers in Napa, but she is also much more than this. Knowing Pam Starr and following her exquisite wines for years, just about all would agree! Her technical pedigree comes from UC Davis in Fermentation Science. She started as intern at Sonoma Cutrer, Edna Valley Vineyard, then six years at Carmenet Winery and then winemaker for Spottswoode Vineyard. In 1997 she and Charlie Crocker established Crocker & Starr.

Charlie Crocker comes from the one of California’s oldest families, with his grandfather who was involved in the Central Pacific railroad in the mid 1800’s. His family heritage was a force in California’s development. Charlie also was involved in high tech and ran several companies very successfully. He had always had a keen interest in wine. Charlie in 1971 purchased the Dowdell property in St Helena. Today 85 of the 100 acres are planted in the classical Bordeaux grapes.

The blending of these two personalities is as smooth as their wine — seamless and magnificent.

What I enjoy most in knowing Pam, is her genuineness and friendliness. You can stop by and see her in the vineyards, driving a forklift, punching down tubs of grapes, just about anything and everything. She is immersed in the business of “perfection”. Yet she has time, to sit down and talk, provide a bowl of water for my dogs, and even converse about mundane “non-wine issues”. She is above all else, real and kind. Why wouldn’t you like her wine?

Her enthusiasm spills over into her craft of winemaking skills. I am speaking as a customer and wine club member from this perspective. Since meeting Pam, some 10+ years ago, her wines started out at a 10 (scale of 1-10) and have remained at this quality the entire time!

Let’s talk about the wines she produces. First, and why I sought Crocker & Starr out 10 years ago, is their Cabernet Franc. Each year they produce one of the most consistently solid and best Cabernet Franc’s in the Valley. The wine always shows a deep purple, with concentrates of black raspberries and tobacco. As some Cab Francs can be “strong”, C & S’s  are strong in texture, but surprisingly soft and velvety to drink. They have enough balance of structure, tannin and acid to last 10-15 years without fail.


While initially attracted to their Cabernet Franc, I was introduced to their Cabernet Sauvignon which was also in a league of their own. This wine is called Stone Place, comes from some of the oldest vines on the property (40+ years). This produces small concentrated berries which gives the wine a deep ruby color with immense complexity. Pam’s best describes it as “a complex nose showcases aromas of cocoa, black cherry, coffee bean, lavender and vanilla spice. Flavors of black plum and huckleberry preserves, expand on the palate with ripe berry and black chocolate lingering on the wine’s silky finish”.  Again, in the top tier of Cabernet Sauvignon’s in the Valley.

She also produces two of my favorite other wines!!  The Sauvignon Blanc which has phenomenal citrus and liveliness to awake any seafood pairing. This is a stable in the cellar for these occasions and especially for an Ahi ceviche with mango, serrano peppers, etc.


The other wine is her Casili Blend, which today, is their 5th release. It is a combination of Malbec (82%) and Cabernet Franc (18%) which we serve often with Spanish or high Mexican dishes— it is the perfect compliment.


Perhaps one of the best things about the winery when visiting is sitting in the “cottage” or at the solid wood table just outside, with a great view of the vineyards. From there a simple flat stroll to the vineyard in which winery personnel can explain the trellising system, climate and their unique terroir. A new physical processing plant is going up as this is being published, but more on that later in another article.


Very seldom to you find a winery or winemaker who can have the broad scope of winemaking of varietals, blends and reds and whites wines. Today, Crocker & Starr is our go to wine for just about any occasion or event. I have proudly introduced 100’s to her wine. Pam excels at all with a humbleness of a simple farm worker— that and exceptional wines, is what makes her a Rock Star.



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Kent Price Wines

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Kent Price Wines

When is being wrong, so right? This is a bit of a self-confession regarding blending of various wines. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s discuss the background of Kent Price Wines.

Kent Price moved his family from Kansas in 2006 to the Bay Area. Shortly after moving here, he underwent a quintuple bypass. Not an easy way to start up in the wine business! Today he is actively involved in fundraising for UCSF Medical Center and Kansas University Medical Center, where he serves on the board guiding long-term growth. As part of his family’s mission to help battle heart disease, a percentage of the sales of all Kent Price wines goes to fund research into heart disease. The wines are apply named: Cabernet Sauvignon – Pulse; His red blend — Venant du Coeur (coming from the heart) and his white blend — Venant du Coeur Blanc (coming from the heart). This is in keeping with one of his motivations and passion to produce a quality wine from the land.

He quickly hooked up with one of the top wine makers of Napa Valley, Rudy Zuidema. Rudy’s background include working with and for: Philippe Melka of Metisse, James Hall of Patz & Hall, Ted Lemon of Littorai, John Thatcher of Cuvaison and Ben Riggs of Wirra Wirra in Australia. Applying this experience to Kent Price Wines has been remarkable. This is where the “self-confession” comes into play.  In many discussions over the past couple of years with Rudy, be it at a vineyard or over a friendly game of golf, I held the position that blends were “second tier” to a pure varietal. Rudy, being the experienced professional winemaker for over two decades, insisted that blending, allowed the fullest character to be extracted. Rudy was correct!  He more than proved it with Kent Price Wines. I might have to give him an extra stroke next round.


I have been purchasing Kent Price since their first release of their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. I just recently tasted their 2012 Cabernet and was again impressed. But surprisingly, what caught me off guard was their two blends. First the Venant du Coeur red blend. This wine of Petite Sirah (59%), Syrah (28%) and Zinfandel (13%) was so delightful and drinkable. I don’t know if it was the atypical co-fermentation or native yeast, but Rudy created something very special here. In his words “is driven by the deep purple hue of the Petite Sirah with its masculine notes of blueberry, earth, pencil lead and tar.  Syrah and Zinfandel add additional layers of complexity.  On the nose they contribute bacon-fat and sweet pipe tobacco along with a layer of spice and pepper notes on the palate.  Texturally the wine is rich and mouth coating leading to a long finish accented by molasses, blackberry and kirsch.”

Similarly, the Venant du Coeur Blanc, pushed me into further appreciation of his creativity. This has roughly 50% a Grenache Blanc and the remainder equally split between Roussane and Viognier. From just reading the label featuring these blends, it is hard to get one’s head around what is to follow. Suffice it to say, it is a very mouthful experience. This was fresh and smooth with hints of citrus, mango and passion fruit. Rudy’s description expounds even further “The nose has an exciting blend of dried rose petals, apricot nectar with a hint of malt and verbena. This is followed by the opulent mouthfeel so typical of the Grenache Blanc core and complemented by layers of white stone fruit, mango and melon with added notes of blood orange and pink grapefruit. The extremely long finish is a layered fusion of citrus, apple and honeyed pear that leaves you wanting for another glass.” At $28, this could be the find of the year in my opinion. A unique and decisively creative alternative to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, yet having subtle characteristics of both.


Now back to the Cabernet Sauvignon. To date, the best they have made! Rich, dark and able to drink today and will lay down easily for 5-7 years. Rudy sums it up as “Light shadings of chocolaty French oak tie these bold components together into a complex, powerful, but still approachable rendition of classic Cabernet Sauvignon from the highly regarded appellation of Rutherford.”

If you desire a solid, creative wines, look no further than Kent Price Wines.  You will not be disappointed and you will be able to taste the expressions and passions “coming from the heart”.


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Robert Craig Winery

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Robert Craig Winery                                            

On top of old Smokey!  Now that I have your attention and you have the lyrics in your head, it is really on top of Howell Mountain. Located at the very top at 2,300 feet elevation, Robert Craig Winery has its production facility and estate vineyards. For those less adventurous a spectacular tasting room is located in downtown Napa, the Robert Craig Winery Tasting Salon.

Their entire production is 10,000 cases with 50% being dedicated to their award winning Affinity Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.  I met with Elton Slone, President and CEO and Stephen Tebb, winemaker for Robert Craig Winery. Elton provided in detail the history of the winery for the last 30 years. Elton, who is the managing partner, now at the helm shared his vision and reinvestment into the business to bring to market his passion for old world wines to the new world of Robert Craig Winery. He Stephen are working hard to bring to forth individual site expression into the wine. They offer, besides Affinity (a true Bordeaux), specific appellations like Spring Mountain, Mt Veeder, and Howell Mountain.  Stephen has who has been producing wine for Robert Craig for the last eight years appears to thrive on mountain fruit. The scores for their 2013 Afffinity have been 93+ pts, 2012 Howell Mtn at 95 pts and 2013 Howell Mtn coming in at 95+ points from Robert Parker. These are balanced big reds with tamed tannins, acids with just enough push to allow for a fruit forward tasty wines. Here is one view of the Howell Mountain vineyard with Spring Mountain on the other side of the Valley.



Elton and Stephen explained the low yields on the various mountains where they gather their fruit. Howell Mtn for example typically produces only 1.8 tons per acre and Spring Mtn with only 2.1 tons. That stated, the Howell Mtn fruit can have massive amounts of tannins, as high as 1400 compared to Valley coming in around 1200. So in their 2013 Howell Mtn Cabernet Sauvignon they introduced 12% Merlot to “round off and soften” the wine. On this one, they hit the bullseye!  Their Mt Veeder which got the 95+ points from Parker, unfortunately goes to Club Members only—A good incentive to join!! Stephen is making solid handcrafted wines.

Here is where the magic happens on Howell Mtn, their production facility. The building on the left is the production facility and on the right is a cozy location for tasting wine.


If you are looking to add to your cellar or want a full body wine to drink, their remarkable wines are more than worthy of your consideration today. In the very near future, they will soar to be one of the premium wines of Napa Valley. Their trademark “Cabernet Sauvignon Elevated” is beyond the topography of the vineyards – it is all about quality wine.



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From the name of the wine, you immediately get a sense of a whimsical venture and then add their logo of a monkey on a unicycle and what am I talking about you wonder?


This is not your typical boutique or handcrafted wine. Let’s start with the name Harumph. From the Urban Dictionary, it means “an expression of disdain, disbelief, protest or dismissal; a huff, a grunt or snort.” Perhaps less appealing than many of the high flier wineries of Napa Valley,  it does capture the two owners Scotti Stark and Michael DeSantis personality even if it makes you do a double take.

It was at a dinner party that a good friend mentioned to Scotti and Michael, “Give the Governor a HARUMPH”. A line from Mel Brooks’ movie Blazing Saddles movie, thus the name. As they have stated many times “It’s about friends, family, food and fun. It’s about living well and laughing out loud”. Who can argue about that as a motif for a name?


But there is a serious side to their wine! They have access and have chosen carefully the vineyards in which to extract their juice. Michael DeSantis has had the opportunity to work with a “who’s who of winemakers: Thomas Rivers Brown (Schrader Cellars, Outpost, Maybach, etc.), Benoit Touquette (Realm Hartwell, Fait Main, Kata, etc.) and Martha McClellan (Sloan, Levy & McClellan, Checkerboard).  These winemakers are serious and make excellent wines. So now Michael is embarking on his own label with Scotti Stark. Scotti, who I have known for six years, is a “man of all seasons”. He became the Wine Director at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston and where is developed their wine program and earned “Best Sommelier award from Food and Wine Magazine in 2000”. Similar to Michael, he cut his teeth with some of the better wineries in the Valley including Revana Family Vineyards, Crocker & Starr and Fisher Vineyards working to develop their hospitality programs. In addition he still represents many small boutique and handcrafted wineries in the Valley (Casa Piena, Peacock, etc.). Add to this his passion for aerial photography/video via drones (the Stark Advantage) and concierge services, Scotti “gathers no moss”!

So these two individuals have “blended their talents” to create Harumph. They source only the best fruit and are now on their second year release of both Napa & Spring Mtn wines. I was fortunate to purchase their first and subsequent release which have been a blend of various vineyards from the Valley. Their releases have been extremely small quantities and will sell out quickly. This week they will be releasing their Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012. This wine is a dark purple, complex and provides a nice finish on the roof and back of the mouth – it represents Spring Mountain depth in quality. It has plenty of tannins and acidity to drink now or cellar 7-10 years.


While the name may be a bit whimsy, it is truly a SERIOUS WINE to consider!


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What you see is not what you get! Let me explain. When you first arrive at Arkenstone, you view a medium sized brown modern but “plain” metal building.  The grounds are pastoral with vines in view. There is an inviting and casual patio and some crush equipment in an “open air” covered area. Looks like a quaint and small operation at a typical 1500 foot elevation Howell Mountain winery. Nothing could be further from the truth.


The entire operation is essentially “underground”. The impact on the environment is almost nil. The operation is set up on a gravity flow system from above, down to the caves forty five below which are immense.

First let me introduce a few key people of Arkenstone. The owners are Susan and Ron Krausz. Susan was our host for the day. Originally from Minnesota, her charm and hospitality still warmly mid-western, provided a calm and relaxing tour, history and tasting experience. Arkenstone was founded in 1988 and planted in 1998 with their inaugural vintage in 2006. The majority of wines are with estate fruit and two small projects that are non-estate. Today, Sam Kaplan is the winemaker extraordinaire. On staff and with us for the tasting was the knowledgeable Ashley Broshious, an Advanced Sommelier and studying for her Master Sommelier test this summer.

Now back to the “underground world of Arkenstone”. As we descended the stairs off the patio, it had a feeling of going down the rabbit hole. The difference however is that Alice in Wonderland didn’t know where she was going – here, Susan certainly did. What transpired was a viewing deck for this enormous cavern with all the production equipment, tanks and storage of barrels. The two pictures are 180 degrees in opposite directions.



When compared to the above ground portion of the winery, one is awestruck with the immensity of the cavern. Not seen in the pictures are the “side streets” of the caves. With this size Arkenstone’s production today is approximately 2,000 cases in total. Susan and Sam mentioned they do production for several other small wineries in the area. Besides the “grandeur” of the caves, what strikes you both above ground and in the caves is the pristine cleanliness and quality of construction.

As with Alice in Wonderland, I was wondering what the next surprise would be. It was shortly found out that the wines were even more intriguing. We started off with a Sauvignon Blanc that was 3% Semillon, 1/3 done in a cement egg, 2/3 in oak. The grass and mineral tastes were refreshing. The next wines, two separate years of Obsidian Cabernet Sauvignon was the big and final surprise. A Bordeaux blend of 70-74% Cabernet Sauvignon with varying percentages of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The nose was impactful with blueberries, blackberries and mocha. The integration of varietals and nose were near perfect with a velvety texture.


After the tasting, you can truly understand why the name Obsidian was chosen for their flagship Cabernet – as one definition calls Obsidian “born out of quickly cooled volcanic lava, so it has the potent energy of the interaction of several and powerful elements—fire, earth and water”. So it is with Arkenstone- truly a powerful and integrated wine.



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Barnett Vineyards

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At the top of Spring Mountain AVA, at 2600 foot elevation is Barnett Vineyards. The trek up the switchback road to the peak is worth the adventure. Upon reaching Barnett Vineyards, you are greeted with a breathtaking view looking back towards Howell Mtn. The Valley floor is the area between Calistoga and St Helena. Unfortunately the day this picture was taken it was a bit overcast, but on their website you will find a few beautiful sunny photos. As you can see the terrain is very sloped (30 degrees and more)!


A quick background on the owners, Fiona and Hall Barnett. They bought the 40 acre property in 1983 and established Cabernet as their initial varietal.  In 2007 they hired David Tate as Winemaker and General Manager. I had the opportunity to meet him at dinner and discussed his vision for Barnett wines in 2015. For those who do not know David, he is a very “solid contributor” to the wine industry at large and has had a phenomenal impact on Barnett Vineyards. David has produced wine in Australia, France, New Zealand and now Napa Valley. His influence from vineyards to wine making has shown well with their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Rattlesnake Hill receiving a 98+ points from Robert Parker. It is truly a 98-100 point wine with its dark concentrated mountain fruit and layering of tannins. He believes it “will last 18-20 years”. The 2013 Cabernet Franc rivals some of the best in the Valley with its dark purple color with hints of floral and dark chocolate. It will mature for 7-9 years and only 400 cases were produced. These are two of the best wines at Barnett.

And not to be left out is their 2013 Spring Mountain Merlot. I can count the number of Merlot’s that I have lined up to purchase on one hand. This is one I did purchase at the end of the visit.

Our tasting was held in a small room at the end of their cave. It is a beautiful and quiet room in which to leisurely enjoy the presentation and tasting. The cave is about 3,000 square feet and the space is used almost to capacity. Looking from the front of the cave you can see the room at the end.


Only French oak barrels are used and they range from 65% to 95% pending varietal and needs. The balance are used barrels,  aged roughly 1-3 years.

Tastings are available by appointment from 10am to 3pm daily. Their wines besides the three already mentioned include: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from other limited vineyards in Anderson Valley and elsewhere.  Barnett has a club called the Wine Society and some high demand wines are allocated first for their consumption.

I can truly endorse a visit and know you will enjoy their hospitality, views, and most importantly their exquisite wines.



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