Once you’ve spent some quality time in Napa Valley, visits can start to feel like home — familiar restaurants, favorite wineries, heck, you may even find yourself catching up on news with the winemakers and staff themselves. Here are three impressive family-owned-and-operated Napa wineries that will make you feel like you’re one of their own.
Nichelini Family Winery
Swiss homesteaders Anton and Caterina Nichelini chose the verdant, sundrenched foothills between St. Helena and the Chiles (rhymes with “dials”) Valley in 1884 to build their 14-foot-by-14-foot cabin. They would become a large family, many of whom still live in the area and continue the tradition of winemaking. The cabin’s still there — what’s left of it anyway — and it’s being lovingly restored by income generated from a family winery that supported the Nichelinis and their 12 children through Prohibition and the Great Depression. Pull up to the ridge-side property and report to one of two tasting rooms: the parlor of the large home in cold or inclement weather; or behind the house, in the shade of the barrel cellar, when skies are nice and clear.
Intriguing Facts: The Nichelini house did not have electricity until 1947, and still used a Roman Press (one of just two left in the area) to make wine all the way up to 1955. The incredibly narrow, winding mountain road on which the winery sits was only paved in the early 1950s and, believe it or not, is much wider than the original single-lane road.
Not To Be Missed: Fifth-generation Nichelini winemaker (N5, in their family parlance) Aimée Sunseri’s old-vines muscadelle and bright merlot — angle for a barrel tasting if you can swing it. And celebrate Nichelini’s 125th consecutive harvest at the Festa della Vendemmia on October 3.
Fontanella Family Winery
There’s a chance you’ll meet the whole family at Fontanella, where the husband-and-wife team of Jeff and Karen Fontanella live on property with their two young sons, John Henry and Andrew, and three happy winery dogs, Payton, Riley and Burt Reynolds. The 26-acre vineyard and winery produces crisp, refreshing chardonnays, luxurious cabernet sauvignons and juicy zinfandels from top-notch sourced fruit. Be sure to secure an appointment, as there are no walk-ins here. Then, sit back on the sunny or shaded side of the vineyard-facing tasting patio, or tour the facilities for a unique opportunity to try unfinished wine from two of the three single-vineyard components (ash, shale and gravel) that make up Fontanella’s Mt. Veeder cabernet sauvignon.
Intriguing facts: Karen reckons that 95 percent of her winery’s production is sold exclusively at the winery or through its membership club. So stock up while you’re there, because you won’t find this wine in your hometown or on grocery store shelves.
Not To Be Missed: The Fontanellas will pick their first estate cab this harvest, which will be released in 2018. But you can make your own wine if you pick up a blending kit from the gift shop. Combine the provided base and accent wines to your liking, then send the “recipe” to the Fontanellas. Your wine will be produced to your specifications on their equipment and shipped to you with customized labels.
It was a family affair from the start in 1971, when John Buehler Sr. bought the land in the foothills below Howell Mountain, overlooking the Conn Valley. Now run by his son, John P. Buehler, and his children, Buehler is the largest of these three family wineries, producing 50,000 cases per year. (Nichelini produces less than 2,000 cases and Fontanella about 4,000.) But you wouldn’t know that by the looks of things. From the gates, proceed along a narrow road to the charming ivy-covered house and tasting room. A tour reveals wild and crazy crown-pruned zinfandel from the ’70s, dry-farmed Papa’s Knoll cabernet sauvignon and stands of hearty trees enshrouded in moss. Reach out well in advance to secure one of two daily appointments, and relish the fact that the tours are free, something almost unheard of in Napa. Further confusion will come when John P. Buehler proudly points out that the most expensive 750-milliliter bottle on his list, the Papa’s Knoll cab, is just $45.
Intriguing Facts: There are two “ghost wineries” near Buehler. Leaving nearby St. Helena on horseback in 1880 en route to the town of Monticello (now beneath the manmade Lake Berryessa), Buehler says, you would have passed the now-crumbling Franco-Swiss Winery and the Salmina Winery, which is part of the Buehler footprint today.
Not To Be Missed: Two side-by-side comparisons—Buehler’s Russian River and Carneros chardonnays (hint: the Russian River chard gets more of a maritime influence) and the estate cabernet sauvignon followed by the vineyard specific Papa’s Knoll cab.