Casa Nuestra Winery, St. Helena: Current Releases

Deep in the heart of the Napa Valley there lies a winery like no other. The last bastion of fun in a valley that has largely slipped into a commercial or cult funk of prestige, Casa Nuestra Winery simply refuses to take itself seriously, and refuses to let its visitors and clients forget for a moment that wine, first and foremost, should be a lighthearted experience. AND, they’ve got a peace sign on every bottle!

Currently situated in a small yellow farmhouse on the Silverado Trail in St. Helena, the Casa Nuestra winemaking story began in Oakville in 1956, when Gene Kirkham, known to locals as “The Happy Farmer” bought one of the earliest planted hillside vineyards in that region. Originally planted in the 1940’s with a befuddling mix of varietals, this vineyard, originally called Tinto definitely contains Cabernet Pfeffer, Zinfandel, Alicante, Mouvedre, Mondouse, Carignane, Pinot Noir, Petit Sirah, and Gamay, along with several other vines that still leave experts scratching their heads. This mix of grapes reflects an older style of winegrowing and winemaking known as field blending, where various types of grapes were all crushed together to make a single wine.

Planted at a time when the neighboring plots of land (which would eventually become Far Niente, Harlan Estate, and Heitz’ Martha’s Vineyard) were mere cow pastures, the Tinto vineyard was cultivated for 19 years by the Kirkham family before they decided to establish their own estate, and purchased the small plot in St. Helena where Tom Blackburn made his home and his own wine. Casa Nuestra was Tom’s pet name for his little farm, and it was kept when Kirkham bought the property and its vineyards in 1975 and started making wine there.

Now in its 26th year of operation, Casa Nuestra still makes wine from the original Tinto vineyard (labeled “Tinto Classico”) and has taken cuttings from most of the vines in that vineyard and grafted them to new rootstock in its St. Helena vineyards as well, giving the estate another Tinto field blend (labeled just “Tinto”).

Rolling down the short dirt road to the tasting room is like stepping out of the Napa scene into another dimension. From the little pen of weed-eating (and everything-under-the-sun-eating for that matter) goats that keep you company as you picnic under the trees in the backyard, to the cozy little tasting room plastered from floor to ceiling with Rock & Roll and Movie memorabilia with great tunes blaring in the background, the experience is unlike any other tasting experience in Napa.

You’re likely to be greeted by a loud “how the heck are ya!?” courtesy of Stephanie Trotter-Zacharia, who will happily taste you through the rather extensive portfolio of Casa Nuestra wines, all of which are made in incredibly small amounts (the winery produces only about 1800 cases in total every year). She’ll happily explain every piece of memorabilia on the wall, from the signed Elvis poster from a movie he shot on the farm, to the concert poster of Peter Yarrow, one of the few people I know who shares my last name. She’ll even show you the secret handshake (yes there really is one) if you happen to join their wine club.

I’ve never seen anyone fail to walk out of the tasting room without a grin on their face, and that seems to be precisely what the folks at Casa Nuestra intend. They make excellent wines, but they know that unless you’re having fun, even the best wines in the world aren’t worth the hassle of an uptight corporate tasting experience.

Winemaking is done by Gene Kirkham’s longtime friend, Allen Price, who got his start as a winemaker at Charles Krug in the early Sixties, and whose family has been living in St. Helena for several generations. His winemaking style, in my opinion, can be characterized as evenhanded and expressive without bowing to ostentation or overpowering elements. Most varietals, and especially the delicate field blends, are treated with a deft hand and a care that is only possible with the small quantities that are produced.

Here’s a rundown of Casa Nuestra’s Current releases:

2004 Casa Nuestra Chenin Blanc, Green Valley
A pale, nearly colorless gold in the glass, this wine has amazing green apple scents in the nose and a bright mineral body, with flavors of cold cream, green apples, and crushed stones in the mouth with a crisp an refreshing finish. Excellent acidity and pure flavors make this one of the best California Chenin Blancs I have ever had. 98 cases produced. Score: 9. Price: $18.

2004 Riesling, St. Helena Estate
Pale gold in color with hints of green, this wine has a sweet nose of clover honey. In the mouth it is almost entirely dry (.8% residual sugar) with good acidity supporting primary flavors of chamomile, pineapple, honey, and sun drenched wheat. 154 cases produced. Score: 8.5. Price: $19.

2004 Casa Nuestra “Napa Valley Rosado,” St. Helena Estate
A blend of 44% Cabernet Franc and 66% Merlot juice, this wine is a bright pink color in the glass with hints of orange. It has a crisp nose with aromas of hibiscus and minerals. In the mouth it is bright and fruity with good acid and flavors of raspberry and strawberry that manage to avoid being cloying or sweet and offer just the right amount of refreshment. 298 cases produced. Score: 9.5. Price: $28.

2003 Casa Nuestra “Tinto Classico” Old Vines, Oakville Estate
This field blend (see above for partial list of varietals) is a mysterious dark purple color in the glass with a nose that sports primary aromas of cut green grass, geraniums, figs, and other dark fruit scents. In the mouth it is well balanced and smooth, with silky tannins, and has flavors of cherries, plums, and dates, and a moderate finish. 171 cases produced. Score: 9. Price: $37.

2003 Casa Nuestra “Tinto St. Helena,” St. Helena Estate
Also a dark purple in the glass, this field blend from the home estate has a thick nose of blueberries, chocolate, and unidentifiable floral notes, while in the mouth it has perfect balance and poise. The primary flavors of chocolate, blueberries, blackberries, and plums are supported by a nice acidity and dusty tannins that carry the wine through to a remarkable finish. A truly stellar wine and one of my new favorites from Napa. Worth the effort to get your hands on even one bottle of the miniscule 171 cases produced. Score: 9.5. Price: $37.

2002 Napa Valley Meritage, St. Helena Estate
A medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has a subdued nose of dam earth, wet felt, and hints of red stone fruit. In the mouth it has the minerality of a classic Bordeaux and a lovely silky mouthfeel and good balance, with flavors of wet slate, freshly peeled bark, and hints of cherry that finish with a slight bitterness, that while I did not think so, some may find unpleasant. The finish is modest and I suspect this bottle may improve with some time in the cellar. The wine is a blend of Merlot (54%), Cabernet Franc (9%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (37%.) 498 cases produced. Score: 8.5/9. Price: $45.

2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, St. Helena Estate
A medium garnet in color, this wine has a lovely nose of cinnamon and sweet oak, with hints of the chocolate and floral notes one would expect from a Cab Franc. In the mouth it is thick and expansive with primary flavors of cherries that are shot through with sturdy, sweet tannins that make for a nice finish and a good bet for long terms cellarage. 374 cases produced. Score: 9. Price: $32.

The winery also produces a Merlot and a wine called Two Goats Red, a blend which changes every year but most recently was a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.

Most of these wines, at least the ones that aren’t sold out, are available for purchase online.