California Dreaming At Porter Family Vineyards In Napa

I am an Italian wine snob. I admit it. I love everything about Italy and have always turned up my nose at those who compare California to Italy, Napa to Tuscany, and other silly things like that. That was, until last night. I don’t know what is happening to me. Perhaps I just need a vacation and maybe I am just so happy to be out of New York but California looked surprisingly like Tuscany yesterday, with rolling hills, wheat and soft plantings.

Thanks to the Society of Wine Educators, I am at the annual wine conference in Sacramento. As part of the conference, we had a wine dinner at Porter Family Vineyards in Napa. I would surely never have happened on this winery and I am truly pleased to have had the opportunity.

The setting as I mentioned is ideal and truly reminded me of corners of Italy. The family that runs the winery was extremely kind and welcoming and to boot they had built a beautiful home with fabulous plantings and an incredible wine cellar replete with a King Arthur like room. The only thing missing was a round table. Enough about the supreme setting, I actually really liked the wines. After all, this is a wine blog about wineries and wine producers.


The Porters described themselves as scientists who studied their land assiduously before deciding where to build their winery. While searching for the ideal spot, they discovered a fossil with a sandpiper’s footprints from millions of years ago. Apparently, the area where the winery sits was a shoreline at one time.

The Napa Valley is well known for having varied soils, more than 30 different types. The Porter’s winery is built on volcanic ash over bedrock in a town called Coombsville. They are awaiting a designation as a new AVA which is expected to come through any time soon. The vineyards are at 600 feet above sea level and gets considerable sunlight although it also benefits from cooling breezes off of the San Pablo Bay.

Not to harp too much on the view but the winery rests at the tip of Napa and you are treated to a spectacular view of the whole valley and the mountain ranges in the distance.

One difference in wineries in California, or at least this winery, is that everything is new and immaculate. Whether it be the fermentation vats, the barriques or the sorting equipment. Tom Porter, the owner of Porter Family Vineyards appears to have spared no expense on his 15 acre vineyard. The family is planting mostly Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon along with small lots of other Bordeaux varietals.

The Porters practice sustainable farming, looking to protect and promote the health of their land, the environment, their employees and family. They use a technique called deficit irrigation which creates water stress on the vine. This stress helps to control vigor of the grape vine which can be a problem in warm weather climes. They also use integrated pest management and study each specific pest’s vulnerabilities in order to combat them without using pesticides and chemicals.

Ken Bernards is the wine maker at Porter Family Vineyards. Bernards has his own wine label and has made wines for numerous wineries throughout the United States and Chile. He has a long relationship to the vineyards and is well acquainted with the terrain.

Bernards spoke at length during our visit on his different wines and the systems that they have created to gently treat the wines during vinification, including a machine that makes the grapes “hop” to the selection table and eventually into the fermentation vat.

One of my favorite wines was their 2008 Sandpiper rose’ made from Syrah. According to Bernards, the best rose’ is made from whole bunch pressing not from the saignee method. The wine was very fruit forward with lovely bright acidity. A real pleasure to drink on a summer evening overlooking the Napa Valley.

We were also treated to an interesting Cabernet Sauvignon blend of three different vintages, the 2005, 2006, 2007 were blended together. The wine hasn’t been released yet and some of my colleagues wondered at the wisdom of the blend.

I thought it was lovely and surprisingly drinkable, much more so than the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon which was extremely tannic and closed. I am sure the Cabernet will be eminently drinkable but not for some years.

The Porters also make a Syrah. We were lucky enough to taste a barrel sample as well as the 2006 vintage. Pepper and chocolate were the signature flavors that I found in both examples.

All in all, the evening was memorable as were the telescopes set outside to gaze at the planets and the stars. I am sure this family that hails from the Midwest has great things in store. I look forward to trying their wines again in the future.

In the meantime, I guess I have to change my assumptions about California and the Napa Valley. Flexibility and the ability to admit when you are wrong are signs of maturity they say. I think I will just have to make another trip to be sure.


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