Update: Following the death of owner Budge Brown (on the day of our visit in May, in fact), Cleavage Creek closed its doors permanently in July 2011. However, I think that many will still find the story below of Budge and the winery of interest. The article also includes several other Napa wineries.
A beautiful warm spring day in Northern California wine country was ideal for a Napa Day Trip.
Last weekend, I met up with travel and wine writer, Dave Thompson, for a Napa day trip that started at Cleavage Creek Winery in Pope Valley, far removed from the busy big name wineries along Highway 29 through the Napa Valley.
On the way there, a wrong turn in St. Helena took me on an enjoyable scenic route to Pope Valley with miles of twisting, narrow roads through the hills and past peaceful Lake Hennessey.
Arriving at Cleavage Creek, I was greeted at my car door by Pietro, the winery’s beloved German Shepherd.
Sadly, Budge Brown, the owner of the winery, had died in a small plane crash in the Sierras and was discovered just the night before our visit.
Jean Varner, Director of Winery Operations, gave us a warm welcome in the tasting room and spoke with pride about Budge, his passion for producing quality wines and his dedication to breast cancer research and support efforts. Cleavage Creek Winery was a labor of love for Budge after the death of his wife in 2005 from breast cancer.
The labels on Cleavage Creek bottles feature a breast cancer survivor whose inspiring story is also shared on the website. 10% of sales are donated to breast cancer research and support organizations. We tasted a variety of wines, including the Petite Sirah, Budge’s favorite. I purchased a bottle of the popular Secret Red, made from a blend of grapes that changes each year.
With some time before our second appointment, Dave suggested we stop at Clif Family Winery and Farm’s tasting room called Velo Vino (Bicycle Wine) back down the hill in St. Helena. Owners Kit Crawford and Gary Erickson are the same people who make the famous Clif Bar energy and nutrition products.
Pouring wine for us in the tasting room was Jeanie, a friendly and enthusiastic “wine domestique”. My favorite was the 2006 Gary’s Improv Syrah. Each year the “Gary’s Improv” label is put on the wine that is produced from the year’s best varietals and vineyards.
I thought the Climber Pouch (All-Terrain Wine Transport), an economical and eco-friendly way to purchase their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. was a good idea.
With a commitment to the environment and sustainability, Clif Winery donates one percent of their gross profits to 1% For the Planet, an alliance of businesses who support environmental groups around the world.
Tedeschi Family Vineyards, a private winery outside the town of Calistoga off the Silverado Trail, was our next stop. Owner Emil Tedeschi welcomed us on the patio next to the winery. He was a gracious host, serving us a much appreciated light lunch and pouring his delicious wines. I appreciated the opportunity to visit and taste wine with the proprietor.
The Tedeschi family first planted grapes on this property in the 1960s. Emil now plants Cabernet grapes in his 2-acre vineyard. It’s noteworthy that the alcohol content of the wines produced at this winery (13.5%) are a nice contrast to many Cabernets from Napa that can be well over 14%.
One of the highlights of the day was getting hands-on experience in the vineyard, tucking the vines inside the wires that are strung from each end of the rows.
Inside the small winery at table next to the oak barrels, we also tasted wines not yet bottled. It felt special to have this behind the scenes experience. I was happy to receive a bottle of the Tedeschi 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon that I had enjoyed so much at lunch.
My final stop in the valley was at Charter Oak Winery, on a quiet side street in St. Helena. It is a small family winery where a “Zinart” party was being hosted by winemaker Robert Fanucci and his wife, Layla, an internationally acclaimed artist.
The winery is known for their Zinfandels made the “old-world way” using hand tools that were crafted by Robert’s grandfather a hundred years ago.
Layla specializes in urban cityscapes many of which were on display throughout the winery. Her art also appears on some of the wine labels.
A long-time friend of the Fanucci family gave me a brief tour outside where I enjoyed seeing Layla’s colorful chickens that produce organic eggs for the family.
Since I only had time to taste one wine, it was recommended that I try the excellent Monte Rosso Zinfandel, made by Robert’s son and assistant winemaker, David.
It was a fitting end to a great day in the Napa Valley.
For a comprehensive wine country resource, check out Dave Thompson’s The Napa Wine Project.
These photos are courtesy of D. Thompson:
Pietro and Jean Varner Cleavage Creek Winery
Cathy Sweeney at Tedeschi Family Winery
This sounds like a very socially-responsible vineyard! We’ve only done wine tasting in Napa once, but had to keep ourselves in check because we were driving back to San Francisco that night. Definitely need to go back and give it another go. 🙂
Yes, definitely go back to Napa and check out some of the small family wineries. Remember that some have tastings and tours by appointment only.
Looks like a great day out!! We’ve had to resist the numerous amount of vineyards here in NZ at the moment due to our only form of transport being a camper. Bummer!
It was a great day! New Zealand’s vineyards must be beautiful, too. Hope you can check some out.
Aaah California wines. Good to know that there are private initiatives to produce wine that’s trying to get off the path of homogenisation.
Agreed! I want to go back soon and visit more of the small family wineries.
I know it’s Napa and wine and that in itself is a story to enjoy. However, I love that they do the focus on breast on their labels and donate money. My mom had breast cancer so that’s awesome to see them do this!
Thanks for the comment, Jeremy. Cleavage Creek Winery is doing so much for breast cancer causes. It made our visit there extra special.
What a wonderful day! You would have LOVED our wine-tasting river cruise in Germany we took last fall. Most of the writing about it was on my old travel blog but you can also check it out here: http://www.wanderlustwonder.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/River-Cruise-African-Sun-Times1.pdf and there’s more info here: http://www.promotioninmotion.net/amawaterwaysjanrossonwinerivercruiseonmsamalegro.html You should think about going on one; you would love it!
Jan, I know I’d love a wine-tasting river cruise in Germany! I remember reading your post about it — very nice!
This post made me so happy! I love the Silverado Trail… You did such cool things. I’m going to Napa again by the end of the summer. Let me know if you want to join — I’d love to meet you!
Thanks so much, Abby! Let’s stay in touch about your trip late summer. Would love to meet you, too!
This sounds like the perfect day! I love when we take wrong turns and you find something really special and beautiful that you might not have found otherwise. Wine tastings are my thing- love them… never had the opportunity to go into the vineyards though, I would really like to do that.
I hear you about wine tastings — definitely my thing, too. It’s the whole atmosphere in wine country that I love — the smells, scenery, and the wine! It was so fun to be in the vineyard – loved it.
Wow, you got quite the tour! I love touring the vineyards in wine regions around the world and I especially love it when wineries put special creative touches on their production: labels and donations to a good cause are two of the things you mention here. Great post on a wonderful day in one of my favourite places.
Thanks, Andrea! Each of these wineries was very special in their own ways.
What a great day. I love winery tours and winding roads.
Such sad news at your first stop though. I hope the winery keeps going.
Yes, I hope that Budge Brown’s goals and programs to support breast cancer causes will continue. I think they will as there’s been such a strong commitment.
I’ve not been in Napa (yet). Sounds like an absolutely fabulous day.
Hope you get there sometime soon, Sophie. Beautiful part of the U.S.
I love how these vineyards are making a difference. I will definitely look for their wines when I’m in Canada. Sounds like a fun day out. I love visiting vineyards.
Excellent — check out their websites to find out about distribution!
I love off-the-beat-path vineyards. Hopefully, Budge’s legacy will continue supporting breast cancer research.
About Budge’s legacy — I hope so too!
love the idea of the proceeds going to various organizations. sorry to hear about budge.
there is something special about wine regions. looking forward to getting up there amongst it myself sometime soon!
I’m very impressed with the generosity of Cleavage Creek and other wineries that I’m learning about.
What fun you have in your wanderings! Love the napa valley wine tasting trips I made back in the 80’s with friends from California
I think you’d find Napa changed in many ways since the 80’s — yet the same beauty and spirit!
How fun to be able to lend a hand in the winery! I hope one day to visit the Napa for some serious wine tasting.
You’d love it, Corinne! Yes, it was great fun to “help out” at Tedeschi — a highlight of the day.
Interesting post and quite a unique operation. I love my wine and would have loved this 🙂
Thanks, Robin — I love my wine, too 😉
Wineries that give back. I love it! I’m due for a Napa wine tour very soon. 🙂
Christy, you’re due! I think a wine country tour is something that should be done on a regular basis!
I haven’t been to any of the wineries you’ve visited but definitely agree its fun to visit the less mainstream ones. We toured the region for 10 days by bike last year – and the only problem was we couldn’t carry much wine. One of our favs was the cave tour at Del Dotto – fantastic wine & thank heavens we were biking back to the hotel & not driving.
Never heard of Del Dotto — I’ll check it out! Must have been so much fun by bike.
Looks like the best place for those who love wine 🙂
A great place for wine lovers. I also love Sonoma County. There are actually many wonderful wine areas in California!
Looks like you had a very nice time wine tasting!
Great article 🙂
Wine country stories always make me jealous. I have to do this someday!
Yes, you must! Would love to read about quirky places you would find in wine country.
We were in CA just a week ago and sadly we missed visiting Napa. Went to Plymouth instead for wine tasting and got happily intoxicated!
I haven’t been to Plymouth for wine tasting, but that’s a beautiful area!
I want to go back to Napa! I’m expecting out of towners soon from the Philippines and I think this would be a perfect weekend getaway. I’m kinda tired of going to Santa Barbara. I think the hands-on experience at the vineyard was very cool!
Loved doing the vine tucking – nice to feel that I was helping out, too 🙂
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