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03.02.11

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Phaedra

Somerston Wine Co.

By James Knight


These days, it should come as no surprise when a vineyard hosts a flock of sheep. But a problem of geese, a solution of swans? As Somerston winemaker Craig Becker tells it, the trouble started when wild geese took up residence in their placid lake, high above Napa Valley. Seems that the geese were just as ravenous for Somerston's ripening wine grapes as renowned vintners Ramey, Hall, Barrett and Swift. Turns out that swans chase away geese, so a mating pair were introduced to great success. (That is, until a mountain lion dragged off the female, and the bereaved cob took up "with some odd-looking bird.")

From this tragicomic bestiary, we turn upvalley. Freshly plowed, five acres await planting in a quiet flat below corrugated hills of oak woodland. In the summer, a full range of produce will be picked, prepped and delivered down the hill to their own grocery adjacent the Yountville tasting room. Food pairings will include signature-recipe lamb burgers, courtesy of the 1,500 Dorper sheep that roam the property with their professional, Peruvian shepherd. The Dorpers are not so wooly, says Becker, but taste great.

No crunchy back-to-the-land proposition, exactly, this ambitious Napa venture is the joint vision of Becker and owner Allan Chapman, whose Somerston Holdings has its origins in the 19th-century shipping trade. Becker, a stakeholder "partly because of sweat, partly because of equity," is also a pilot, and releases his own brand under the Highflyer label. His 2009 Grenache Blanc ($19) is all about sensuous texture, with white floral, powdered sugar aromas over subtle, star fruit flavor. The Highflyer 2007 Centerline ($28) is a warm and complex kitchen-sink red blend based on Syrah, with vanilla and cocoa dust on a fleshy sweet palate with Mexican chocolate notes.

Deep, brooding and Petite Sirah-like, the Priest Ranch 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($38) is a varietal outlier; while graham cracker, fig and blueberry sauce flavors flatter the Priest Ranch 2007 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($38). My top praise goes to the mid-tier Priest Ranch 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) with black cherry, toasted nut, strawberry preserve and lively pepper jelly, sans heat; not to diminish the somewhat deeper Somerston 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($120), imbued with black fruit and bitter chocolate. Some fine wines, for a winery that is truly not all about the wine.

Somerston Wine Co., 6488 Washington St., Yountville. Tasting room open noon-8pm, Sunday-Thursday; to 9pm, Friday-Saturday; and 10pm during summer. Tastings, $15 to $40. Ranch tours including horse-drawn buggy rides by appointment, $50. The cheese shop and grocery opens in April. 707.944.8200.


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