A Family Affair: Several Napa Wineries Pass on the Spirit of Winemaking

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SteveReynolds_winemaker.jpgFor generations around the world, families made their own wines, sometimes tending small vineyards behind their homes or just checking on a ceramic crock of fermenting juice hiding in a closet. It was a tradition for everyone--from mom and dad, to the smallest children--to be involved in everything from growing the grapes, to crushing and bottling (or jug-ing, perhaps) these rustic wines. Today, many small-production, boutique wineries continue that tradition in Napa.

Though technology has made the process easier, and many hire some of the valley's most prestigious winemakers to help craft exceptional, rather than rustic wines, the homegrown feeling is much the same. Walking into tiny tasting rooms, often run by the family themselves, the air is less of a corporate machine, and more of an extended living room where visitors can casually sip a glass of wine while chatting with the folks who know the wine from the inside, out.

So, on your next visit to Napa, step off the beaten path and visit some of the many family-run wineries that dot the landscape, offering a taste--and a feel--of the winemaking's glorious past.

August Briggs Wines: In a twist on the usual family dynamics, at August Briggs it is the son that started the winery - and he put his parents to work helping out in the tasting room and leading barrel samples. "Joe" August Briggs keeps things low-key, family-friendly, and unpretentious. This is one of the few wineries you will find in the Napa Valley that doesn't charge for their tastings. Known for their pinot noirs (they make four) and their zinfandel, word is the recent release of Charbono is flying out the door. Stop by, if hob-knobbing with the family while gulping down some wine is on your to-do list.  333 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, 707-942-4912, www.augustbriggswines.com

Ceja Vineyards: This family-owned and operated Carneros winery has a proud Latin heritage. Ceja Vineyards' President Amelia Morán Ceja, husband Pedro Ceja and winemaker Armando Ceja emigrated from Mexico to the Napa Valley in 1967. Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the winery has already become well-known in the winery-rich (400 strong) Napa Valley. Being in the Carneros, you can expect to find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in their offerings, a red table wine, a Syrah, a Cab, and Merlot are also available for tasting. As their website says: "Consider yourself invited. When you visit, you won't have to knock. Nuestra casa es su casa." 1016 Las Amigas Rd., Napa, 877-633-3954, www.cejavineyards.com.

Reynold's Family Winery: Inspired by family trips through European vineyards, Steve Reynold's family-run winery is focused on Cabs and its red blend, Persistence. Both winemaker and owner, Reynolds is described as something of a "mad scientist," always eager to try new blends and clones. A collaborative effort with several other vintners, the wine uses grapes from Napa Valley's 13 (now 14) appellations. 3266 Silverado Trail, Napa, 707.258.2558, www.reynoldsfamilywinery.com.

Miner Family: Like many Northern California vintners, Dave Miner didn't start his career in wine. A former software mogul, Miner arrived in Napa to help out his uncle, Bob Miner who owned Oakville Ranch. After Bob's death, Dave stuck around and has grown the family business into one of the valley's best destinations for Chardonnay. The winery logo, featuring two wings, is homage to the family's Persian history, and is based on an ancient Assyrian relief in the image of a Winged Sun God. 7850 Silverado Trail, Oakville, 800.366.WINE, www.minerwine.com.

Frank Family: Hollywood comes to Napa...sort of. Rich Frank, a former Disney exec and major entertainment industry player seeks the life of a gentleman winemaker, but is told by friend and wine mentor Koerner Rombauer, to keep his day job. Undaunted, Frank buys one of the valley's most historic spots, the former Larkmead Winery. And, voila, Frank Family Vineyards is born. The winery produces both still and sparkling wines, but is best known for its supple Cabernet Sauvignon. 1091 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga, 800.574.9463, www.frankfamilyvineyards.com

Dutch Henry: One of the best wineries you've never heard of, Dutch Henry is a family-owned winery specializing in artisan Bordeaux varietals in limited release. Owners Less and Maggie Chafen have been growing grapes in the valley for more than 20 years, and son Scott now handles the winemaking. What grabs folks most about Dutch Henry (the name comes from the nearby Dutch Henry Canyon) is the laid-back, easy-going vibe that is sometimes hard to find elsewhere in the valley. You'll be greeted by the family dogs, chatted up by the staff and spun a yarn or two--like it or not. And chances are, you will. 4310 Silverado Trail, Calistoga, 707.942.5771, www.dutchhenry.com.

Revana: Blink and you'll miss this incredible little winery that's home to some of the valley's best Cabernet Sauvignon, and one of its most sought after winemakers, Heidi Peterson Barrett. Founded by a cardiologist who is a strong proponent of the health benefits of red wine (convenient, eh?), Revana is dedicated to its estate-grown Cabernet. However, Peterson Barrett also uses the winery to produce her own label, La Sirena, which produces some incredible Syrah. 2930 St. Helena Highway North St. Helena, 707.967.8814, www.revanawine.com.

For more information on wineries in Napa Valley, use WineCountry.com's great winery lists.

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