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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

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By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri KrasovA traveler’s mantra: authentic, genuine, off the beaten path – holds its spell over Napa Valley thrill-seekers despite the fact that the more of us are flocking in, the less authentic it becomes. Most of the time, our California Wine Country exploration begins and ends in the city or Napa, where it’s so easy to get one’s fill – if you know what I mean...
This time, on a long weekend trip, my husband and I decided to get to know the Valley a little better and explore it a little further.
We made a tasting appointment at the Benessere Vineyards specializing in Italian varietals and located in the picturesque foothills of St. Helena. Then we put on our map Les Ivrettes Vineyard – a patch of land nearby, producing a very special cab sauv, and finally, we reserved the last remaining room on this holiday weekend at the recently opened Hotel Luca in the neighboring town of Yountville.Our scenic drive among the yellow mustard fields and rows of sleepy grapevines ended up in a sunlit garden of Benessere, where we were touched by a warm welcome even before we entered the tasting room.Barbara Fanucchi, our knowledgeable and passionate winery guide, poured our tasting flights and gave us a quick overview of how Benessere came to be. John and Ellen Benish bought the former Charles Shaw winery in October 1994 almost by accident, as they were just trying to acquire a second home in Napa Valley. After vacationing in Italy, the spouses had an idea to get a couple acres of vines and start making some family wine, but ended up buying the property with rich history and a great potential.
What is now Benessere (or “well-being” in Italian) in the 1800s was a land, inhabited by the Wappo Indians. In the 1930s and 40s it used to be a dairy ranch, in the 1960s it was a horse breeding and training farm, and in the late 70s and 80s it belonged to Charles Shaw Winery until the “two-buck Chuck” went bankrupt.
Now, out of 42 acres, about 34 are planted with sought-after Italian varietals producing between 5,500 and 10,000 cases..We started our tasting with a refreshing 2009 Pinot Grigio – made of fruit from Carneros, since the Benessere area weather is too warm for this particular grape. Then we moved to the estate 2009 Rosato with sparkly pink watermelon color and aroma, and then to the flagship wine of Benessere – 2007 Sangiovese with strong Tuscan heritage.
The 2007 Old Vine Zin, richly full-bodied and complex, came from a neighboring 89-year-old vineyard, owned by Bill and Kathy Collins, while the 2006 Phenomenon was composed of the estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Syrah – a real crown jewel of the winery.
Benessere also produces rare in Napa Italian varietals and blends like Sorridente, Aglianico, Sagrantino and an exquisitely delightful dessert wine, Muscat di Canelli-Frizzante.Open seven days a week from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Benessere is located at 1010 Big Tree Road in St. Helena (707-963-5853;
Next, we were heading to Les Ivrettes – literally just a corner block on the Lewelling Ranch, nestled between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains.
Lewelling Vineyards occupy a lucky intermediate area irrigated by Sulphur Creek, but elevated above the valley floor, so it has good drainage and is not exposed to summer heat late in the season. Les Ivrettes is the source of the one and only Trivium Cabernet Sauvignon, a 100% cab – dark, rich, and pure.Several years ago, three wine industry veterans – winemaker Jack Stuart, grower Doug Wight and marketer Stu Harrison – joined forces to bring Trivium to fruition on a piece of land where their young daughters used to play and sometimes try wines, borrowed from their fathers’ cellars. We learned about this fun piece of family history on our brief vineyard tour with Jack Stuart and Stu Harrison, and later enjoyed more stories while having [Trivium] wine and cheese with Stu and his wife, Judy.
The name of the vineyard, Les Ivrettes (tipsy girls) reflects the shared memories of the Trivium partners, while the name of the wine (meaning three roads’ cross-point) refers to the three friends working together to make their dream of a perfect wine come true.
2007 Trivium, released in the Fall 2010 in the amount of only 368 cases, is distributed through Napa Valley Wine Exchange in San Francisco, Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, and website.
After a day of individualized wine touring and tasting in St. Helena, we were ready to embrace the luxuries of Hotel Luca in the beautiful town of Yountville.Opened in December 2009, Hotel Luca fits right in with the downtown boutiques, art galleries and antique shops. The two-story 20-room hotel is built in a Tuscan villa style with a cozy courtyard, a stone tower over an arched walkway, balconies overlooking the fountain, and 200-year-old roof tiles coming from the town of Lucca, Italy.James Deluca, general manager, who personally oversaw the construction, usually greets his guests making sure they receive individual attention.
Settled in our beautiful room with a calming view of the blue mountains from our balcony, we were sipping champagne, poured at the reception upon our arrival, and just smiling at each other.It felt so good just to be here. Everything seemed carefully selected to suit our taste – Restoration Hardware furniture, super-comfy Italian bedding, a NEspresso machine, filling two tiny porcelain cups with delightful crema, and a royally spacious bathroom with a heated tile floor… We almost decided to skip dinner in favor of a hot tub with hotel-provided salts, but it wouldn’t be wise to miss the Tuscan-style delicacies at the Cantinetta Piero.
Fresh, seasonal, regional – that goes by default in this neck of the woods, but also well-executed, perfectly portioned, and nicely served. Were we glad we decided to dine in-house!Warm from the oven bread arrived with salsa rustica made of three types of olives, oven-dried tomatoes, garlic, salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil. My favorite burrata was so good, it came to the table unadorned – just lightly drizzled with olive oil and salt. Wild boar salami shared a serving board with delicately pink San Daniele prosciutto, and Sonoma duck breast was done just right medium-rare, accompanied with carrot puree and topped with a duck egg.Sweet ricotta cheese cannoli were sprinkled with candid orange peel and chocolate shavings – delish!After dinner, we took a walk along the main drag – Washington Street, stopping at the galleries, admiring public art sculptures installed on every corner, and taking in the breathtaking views of the valley sunset.After a long-anticipated hot tub with aromatic salts, I slept like a baby.Next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at Cantinetta Piero (two eggs sunny side up with brioche toast and roasted potatoes for me and yogurt-granola-muffin-berries for my husband) before our check-out time.Hotel Luca is a full-service property, with a restaurant, spa, outdoor heated pool, and a 24-hour workout room. It is children- and pet-friendly, and caters to business and vacation travelers alike. It has full concierge service to help you book wine tasting, dining, transportation, and various activities, including hot air balloons. It is perfect for small weddings and all kinds of celebratory events, and offers two fully-furnished residences for stays of thirty days or more. Located at 6774 Washington Street, Yountville, California. Room rates include breakfast for two. Call for reservations 707-944-8080 or visit Cantinetta Piero is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. The 90-seat restaurant offers al fresco dining and features a wood-burning pizza oven. Call 707-299-5015 for reservations.