Artesa has to have one of the best views of any winery in the region. On a clear day you can see San Francisco, sixty miles from their terrace. To your right is Mt. Tamarind and Mt. Diablo juts out on your left – with everything from Marin County to the East Bay in between. This spectacular panorama is appropriate, as Artesa itself is almost camouflaged and does not take away from but adds to the natural beauty of the surrounding hills. It’s a pretty steep climb to the tasting room – we had to walk our bikes part of the way – but it was well worth it (and going down was awesome).
To construct the winery, which opened in 1991, the family had thirty feet of one of their tallest hills removed, built a pyramid structure three stories into the hill, then put the 30 feet of earth back on top and replanted the same grass that was there before. This was all done to preserve the natural beauty of the land, about which the owners were adamant. They forbid the planting of anything on the hills themselves, and to this day their wishes have been honored. Vines cover the valley floor, but the hills remain as they always have been.
Artesa is owned by a Spanish family that’s been making wine since 1551 and who was actually the first family to take the champagnese style of making champagne out of that region to somewhere else. That somewhere else was Barcelona, Spain, where they already owned some land. They decided to buy more, and while surveying their new property came upon an abandoned statue of the Harvest Madonna. There are grapes in her right hand and the child in her left is also holding grapes. But this is the only known Madonna in all of Spain to have braided hair and they think – but are not sure – that theirs might be the only one in the world with this feature. She now stands in a fountain at the center of the building, entirely open to the sky above, and when the sun bears down on her it is outrageously resplendent.
Like their wines. Originally, Artesa produced only sparkling wines. But with big competitors like Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros down the street they changed their business strategy to focus on still wines. They now do 110,000 cases, and of these 104,000 are still wines. We tasted their reserve list on Saturday and then Tasting Room Manager Michael McKinley gave us a wonderful tour called Vines and Wines Sunday morning.
One of the features of this tour that stood out for me was walking into their cellar and hearing the chanting of monks reverberate, continuously, while we learned about and tasted the wine. Originally, the family winery in Spain was in a valley. On top of a hill in that valley sat a Franciscan monastery where the monks chanted twenty-four-seven. The family believed the monks blessed the wine and have continued this tradition. On Halloween all employees dress in full regalia while the chanting echoes throughout the 8,000 barrel-deep warehouse. I am already booking my visit.
Artesa has class. From the architecture, designed by a now-famous Spanish architect, to the resident artist, Gordon Huether, the Artesa experience is about more than just the wine. But, really, it’’s about the wine. Let me give you two examples.
1. State of the art technology: for the sorting process, Artesa is one of only two wineries in the whole valley with a new machine that helps dispense with any grapes that are not firm and ripe. Instead of the usual one or two step sorting process, Artesa uses this third step.
2. At any given time, there are two chemists on duty. No one else said anything about a chemist, and I’ll add that if I had a winery, I would probably have a chemist. The operation is too important not to know exactly what’s going on – and there are so many factors and levels to monitor! But two chemists? This is science, people.
Artesa has been ‘green’ since before green was cool. All of their lights operate on motion-sensors and they only use AC in August, when the storage becomes too hot for the wines. Even the bags they use for the grapes are made from recycled plastic and can themselves be recycled and are biodegradable. Also, instead of using tractors to dig up the overgrown mustard weed (originally necessary to add nitrogen to the soil), they import two flocks of sheep from Colorado. The grazers do not even look up and see the grapes! Nancy, a sheep dog, ensures the baby goats stay in place.
They use predator birds to scare away the little ones that do eat the grapes. There are red tail hawks, turkey vultures, and owls on their property – and build little houses and perches to encourage them to stay for a while. Needless to say, they do not eat the grapes. “If we could buy a hawk and tell him “This is where you live now” we would definitely do it.” That wasn’t the only funny thing Michael said, either. “The cats you hear are peacocks.” They’re across the vineyard at the di Rosa preserve, the largest collection of modern art this side of the country. You can see some of their structures from Artesa, and during the day you can take a walking tour through their grounds. The one that stuck out for me was a tower of black filing cabinets filled with the disassembled parts of an old MG.
Back to Michael though. He said something that will stick with me, I think, forever: “If it grows like a weed it thinks it’s very healthy, and it doesn’t feel the need to produce seeds, and seeds are grapes.” Feeling the extent of my own thriving recently, and particularly the weekend of this amazing adventure, this comment made me pause; rapid and incessant growth might not always be such a good thing. I am moving a bit more timidly now, and humbly. Thanks, Mike.
I heartily recommend the Vines and Wines tour. Not only do you get to taste Artesa’s sparkling wine, a Chardonnay and a Pinot, but you get to sample two wines of your choice – and the whole menu is available. On top of all this you get an extensive tour of production, storage, and – the neatest – the actual vineyard. Michael was very knowledgeable and the tour is appropriate for virtually any level of experience.
Now, to the wines!
The 2007 Chardonnay has lemon and lime flavors and a hint of green apple. Refreshing, this Chard tingles. At $26/bottle it’s a classic.
We also got to try the Estate Reserve Pinot Noir from 2006. This wine has a real earthiness to it, and dark berry predominates. I really like Artesa’s reds. In fact, we got a chance to try their 2007 Pinot – it was even Michae’s first taste – and people have been saying the 2007 California Pinot might be the best domestic crop… ever. It. Was. Delicious. I used up one of my two samples on this wine and did not regret it, even though I passed up several very limited, winery-only backlists. Wow! As soon as you see this wine on the shelves, buy it.
I also tried the 2005 Tempranillo, grown on their Alexander Valley estate. Balanced and bold, this Spanish red is an excellent blend of blue- and blackberry flavors, a little white pepper, and a leathery feel that makes you want to drink wine until your lips are blue.
I even liked their Merlot, and I usually avoid the grape. Theirs has a full-bodied spice to it, and the finish is smooth and velvety. Mmmmm.
Daily tours are given at 11 and 2PM. They also offer an exclusive cheese and wine pairing in which guests are taken to a remote area and receive a special memento. This tour is offered daily at 11:30. Another tour of note, which I may have to return to experience: The Ultimate Tasting. This is a tasting of the limited release wines in Artesa’s massive storage facility with all the lights off. Fifty candles burn throughout the event and I cannot imagine how amazing it is with those 8,000 barrels as company!
Artesa Vineyards & Winery
1345 Henry Road
Napa, CA 94559