The Opposite of Vanity: Napa's Hidden Gems

Posted by JT Robertson on

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a ton of time for vanity vineyards. Napa is full of them. It goes back to the oft repeated joke, “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start out with a big one.” What began as a dream in the first part of 20thcentury transitioned into a hippy farm town in the 1970s before becoming a ritzy world-class wine region seemingly dominated by expensive bottles made to order. It goes like this:

X millionaire/billionaire decides they want a winery. They hire the top people (agriculturalists, winemakers, wine consultants). They release said wine to the marketplace at a PLUS two-hundred price point (because that’s how much good Napa wines cost, right?). They wait for scores and expect their lists to fill up. Like I said, I’m not thrilled with this formula and there’s a hidden part of the equation well worth paying attention to:

Where are they getting their grapes?

Estates in Napa these days are going to run in the 50-80 million range. You want a wine which is singing, right out of the gate, you need to find the old-school growers who have been in Napa for 30+ years and have top grapes to sell. The great secret is that these growers, who mostly make their living selling their crop, almost always produce a tiny quantity of wines on the side. The quality of the fruit is world-class and the style is old-school. 

Case in point, Rafael and Farella, aka Marc Rafael and Tom Farella. Both of these guys having been working vineyards in some of the best parts of Napa, Oak Knoll and Coombsville respectively, for going on 4 decades. Marc’s parents planted the vineyard in 1885 and, until 2010, sold everything to some of the most highly considered wines in Napa. Tom’s father planted his Coombsville vineyard even earlier (1977). The end result are small quantities of bottles priced reasonably made from incredible Napa fruit in clean, old-school style which offers tremendous value for anyone who loves California wine.

marc rafael

Marc Rafael.

tom farella

Tom Farella.

I’ve been a huge proponent of Tom Farella’s wines for years but Rafael is new to me. Both represent a style of Napa wine which might be fading away or might be cool again (it’s hard to tell) but they are short on new oak, long on depth, short on liqueurish extraction, big on structure, deep on soil expression, high on acidity and perfume. Ultimately, my litmus test for my favorite wines are how much I’m going to enjoy my third glass? It’s easy to enjoy glass 1 and you can keep going through glass 2 but if you’re still entranced by glass 3, you’ve got a keeper. 

Rafael and Farella are both keepers.

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