When Bo Barrett, CEO of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, broke his leg in a ski accident, he was so bored that he went to the local library to do some research. He was curious about the history of the Calistoga District where his winery was located, because at the time, it was the only part of Napa Valley that was not a formal AVA (American Viticulture Area, or appellation).
After several months of study, he started writing the draft document to establish an AVA in this sleepy northern part of Napa Valley that had plenty of vineyards at the time, but very few wineries. Eventually he was successful in completing all of the government documentation and gathering community support, and the Calistoga AVA was established in 2009.
Today this former ‘backwater region,’ has more than 50 wineries, 625 vineyard acres, and is attracting international luxury businesses, such as the Four Seasons and Solage resorts.
And Peters is correct, because tourists are flocking to this northern part of Napa Valley, known for its historic hot springs and innovative restaurants. Indeed, the Calistoga Food & Wine Festival, hosted each Spring, brings in visitors from around the nation.
Calistoga AVA: Maintaining Laid Back Charm Along With Luxury Growth
At the recent Calistoga Food & Wine Festival, 35 wineries were pouring wine along with food served to guests from 8 local restaurants. The festival was hosted at the upscale Four Seasons that opened in November 2021. During the event, several winery owners shared their perceptions with me on the growth within the Calistoga AVA.
“Calistoga has traditionally been known as a slow, sleepy cow punk type of town at the northern end of Napa Valley,” stated Canard Winery owner, Rich “Duck” Czapleski, who owns a historic 150 year old Zinfandel vineyard in the AVA. “There is still a little tension from old timers about the growth of big business, but for the most part, the wineries and restaurants are very happy with all the tourists that are coming in now.”
“The Calistoga Food & Wine Festival helps to showcase local wines and restaurants, and has also helped Calistoga to grow,” commented Heidi Barrett. “I grew up here, and we have a great cast of characters and fun personalities. Restaurants now seem to be booming, and more people are coming. It’s also nice to have big hotels like The Four Seasons and Solage here.”
Four Seasons Director of Sales & Marketing, Terrence Kelley, recognized that some locals were concerned about the influx of luxury resorts into the once quiet town of Calistoga. “We want to help Calistoga continue to grow without losing its small town charm,” he commented. “We want to connect with and support the local community, such as sponsoring events like this festival.”
As part of fitting in, the Four Seasons purchases local grapes so they can produce wine at their Elusa Winery on property. In fact, they are the only Four Seasons in the world to have its own winery, along with 4.7 acres of Cabernet grapes on site.
Both Historic & New Wineries Flourish in Calistoga
As one of the oldest wineries in the Calistoga AVA, established in 1882, Chateau Montelena, was pouring some vintage cabernet sauvignons. Estate Director, George Blanckensee shared, “We like to attend this event, because there’s a great sense of community and it’s part of what we do. For the most part, we are still down to earth good old folks, and it is also a great opportunity for us to connect to the trade.”
Indeed several out of town restaurant owners attended seeking new additions for their wine lists. Lori Bush, co-owner of Oso Restaurant on the Sonoma Plaza commented, “I am always looking for special bottles of wine to add to our restaurant list.”
She was tasting a cabernet sauvignon made by Kenefick Winery that farms the 118 acres of vineyards surrounding the Four Seasons Resort. Chris Kenefick, CEO and owner of Kenefick described the wines, and said they had been growing grapes in Calistoga since the 1980’s. They sell their grapes to the Four Seasons’s Elusa Winery as well as other vintners. They only produce around 3000 cases of their own award-winning wines.
In fact, many of the Calistoga wineries are quite small with limited production. That is why restaurant owners and customers enjoy coming to Calistoga to taste wines that they cannot easily find in wine shops.
Another historic winery present at the festival was Storybook Mountain Vineyards, established in 1883 by the Grimm brothers. The winery is especially well-known for its zinfandel, which Robert Parker deemed one of the top 6 zinfandels in the world.
Associate Winemaker, Colleen Seps-Williams stated, “I still make wine with my 86 year old father, Jerry Sips, who is the head winemaker and co-owner with my mother. Calistoga is very down to earth, and though some people are worried that that might change with large resorts such as the Four Seasons coming in, I think it’s great. You have to grow.”
Newcomer, Maria Concetto Winery, started in 2020, was represented by winery president and founder, Maria Reznikova. A 32-year veteran with the U.S. State Department and international business consultant, Reznikova decided during the Covid pandemic to retire and pursue her dream to start a winery.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, but I chose Calistoga because it is in Napa Valley, and I really like the hot springs here. It reminds me of some of the small German spa towns I used to visit,” stated Reznikova. She opened an opulent tasting salon in downtown Calistoga, and makes her wine with a consulting winemaker at a custom-crush facility.
“Right now I’m selling everything direct to consumers and local restaurants,” she reported. “I wanted to do something passionate with my life, and I did. Wine makes people better!”
Tasting the Wines of the Calistoga AVA in Napa Valley
So what do the wines of the Calistoga AVA taste like? Given that it has a higher elevation than other parts of Napa Valley, ranging from 300 to 1200 feet, has volcanic stony loam soil, and reaches warmer temperatures in the summer, the region specializes in big reds, such as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, and petite syrah. However, other varieties such as sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc also flourish there.
Though it was not possible to taste all of the wines at the event, some of the stand-outs for me were: a 2010 Chateau Montelena cabernet sauvignon poured from magnum; the Canard Vineyard zinfandel made from 150 year old vines; Elusa Winery’s cabernet sauvignon; the Storybook Mountain zinfandel; La Sirena Studio Series red blend; and Maria Concetto’s cabernet sauvignon. All of these wines had the larger velvety tannins that Calistoga is renowned for, along with rich fruit and a hint of savory volcanic soil on the older vintages.
Calistoga holds a series of events throughout the year. There will be another Calistog
a Food and Wine event in November of 2023, this time at the Solage Resort and Spa.